Published on May 29th, 2013 | by Marysa


The Science of Cocktails with Tony Conigliaro


By Marysa Mitch

Sitting in a packed room listening to Tony Conigliaro on a Saturday afternoon while sipping on a martini is not a bad way to spend the day. For those of you who don’t know Tony, he’s the “mad scientist” of the cocktail world with a laboratory above his 69 Colebrooke Row bar in London. There he and his team analyze flavor bridges, and use scientific instruments like a gas chromatograph to manipulate the aroma in cocktails. As a self professed science geek and cocktail lover, I knew I was in for a treat when I attended Tony’s seminar at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic’s Industry Invitational.

The audience was made of up bartenders and fellow industry professionals, who were eager to tap into Tony’s genius, if only for an hour. The topic at hand – food grade cologne. As someone who is fairly new to the cocktail world, I sometimes have a habit of approaching drinks only by how they taste. It’s easy to take aroma for granted, and let it take a back seat to flavor. However, as Tony’s seminar made very clear – aroma and flavor are intertwined.

Fragrance pyramid: Larger, unstable molecules are at the top. These are the aromas you smell first.

What we smell first is determined by the size and stability of the molecule.  For instance, take a whiff of that cocktail in front of you. (Yes, you should always have a cocktail with you at all times when reading Dipsology!) Immediately, you will smell the alcohol present.  This is because alcohol is very unstable. Now smell again. Depending on the type of cocktail and the ingredients, you’ll probably notice a lemon or citrus aroma.  These scents are at the top of the fragrance pyramid (to the right) because their molecules are the largest.  And from there you will notice other aromas on the pyramid, again from largest to smallest molecule with sandalwood and bitter orange aromas smelled last.

This “smell theory” also applies to taste: you taste the smallest molecules later. As Tony described to the class, with a handy illustration of the human tongue, people are hardwired to taste sugar and salt first, as those taste buds are at the tip of the tongue. Bitterness arrives at the end as those taste buds are at the back of the tongue. This is your body’s security system – too many alkalines will make you sick, so as the bitterness hits the back of the tongue you immediately gag. He also explained why we’re always so hungry after eating a large meal at a fast food restaurant. While it tastes like all our needs are being met and hunger soon subsides, an hour or two later our body realizes we were tricked and are not satiated.

a flavor diagram for the Somerset Sour (cider brandy, cider, cognac, lemon & hay-infused egg white) from “The Cocktail Lab”

Still speaking of taste, Tony introduced the class to a new theory – substrata vs. superstrata. Superstrata are those ingredients you cannot taste, but your body and brain are still aware exist. The interesting anecdote used as an example in the session is that a popular condiment company changes the superstrata elements in its recipe every year. You do not taste the difference, but your brain does and it loves that you aren’t eating the same boring stuff. Yes, you are being tricked!

As you can see, smell and taste, aroma and flavor, are woven together and do not exist without the other. The notes of sandalwood that you smell as you are about to sip that cocktail affect how it tastes. And while you don’t think your brain is working after a couple alcoholic beverages, it is! However, beyond that, what I took most from Tony’s great session was the science behind cocktails. If you sit at one of your favorite cocktail bars and watch the men and women craft your cocktail you realize what an art it is. However, behind the beauty and creativity of that drink, there’s also a lot of chemistry.

You can learn more about aroma and taste in cocktails, along with some great recipes (a Manhattan with aged bourbon!) in Tony’s current book, Drinks, as well as his upcoming book, The Cocktail Lab (of which Dipsology has an advance copy, and will be sharing more soon!).


Photos courtesy of 69 Colebrooke Row, Ten Speed Press & Addie Chinn.


Marysa is a freelance writer focusing on spirits, beer, and wine.  She shares her love for all things food and drink related on her blog, limerence + liquor.  You can also follow her on Twitter at @msmarysa.


Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

Marysa is the NYC General Manager & Cocktail Maven of Dipsology. She is also a contributing writer for The Alcohol Professor. You can follow her on Twitter at @msmarysa.

One Response to The Science of Cocktails with Tony Conigliaro

  1. Marysa says:

    Unfortunately, it’s not available in the US until July. I’ve pre-ordered mine though! Can’t wait until it comes in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑