Laura Johansen
Cold Buttered Rum.
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High Techtails

Jeffery Lindenmuth / September 2009

Jeffery Lindenmuth audits a technology charged mixology class where things are shaken and stirred up by the vacuum infusing, modern ice age chilling, and the proverbial pinch of salt.

The mechanics of mixing a cocktail have changed surprisingly little over the course of 200 years. The technique of shaking or stirring alcohol with ice and straining into a glass, outlined in Jerry Thomas' seminal The Bon Vivant's Companion, or How to Mix Drinks of 1862, is still the most repeated ritual of bartenders today. It is, in fact, a highly effective way of chilling and diluting spirits and juices, transforming them into a palatable cocktail. Unlike most professions, if Thomas were to suddenly reappear behind a modern bar he'd probably feel quite at home, easily stepping in to mix up a Martinez or a Gin Fizz. Unless, of course, it was David Arnold's bar.

Peering through a gaseous white cloud of his own construction, Arnold, director of culinary technology at The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and Food Arts contributing editor for equipment and kitchen science, is chilling rum in a bowl of liquid nitrogen, too impatient to let the kitchen freezer do it for him. "Dilution and chilling of a cocktail are separate problems. Or at least they can be," explains Arnold. "We often start with chilled ingredients and shake to the desired dilution. We might have a recipe that uses cold spirits, one cube of ice, and two cubes of frozen grapefruit juice, which then results in the correct temperature and dilution."

While much of Arnold's apparatus—the liquid nitrogen tank, vacuum sealer, and homemade equipment cobbled together like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, using pieces from kitchen tools and Home Depot—is not readily available, other techniques using the stovetop, clarifying agents, and carbonation equipment are well within the reach of any professional, inspiring the debut of the High-Tech Cocktails seminar (part of the Recreational Division at The International Culinary Center, FCI's umbrella), where Arnold, along with Nils Norén, FCI's vice president of culinary arts and a Food Arts contributing authority, demonstrate their 21st century libations. As a frequent consultant to molecular-inclined chefs like Wylie Dufresne of WD-50, Arnold is the technical whiz kid, while Norén, a Swede who once served as executive chef at Aquavit (NYC), obsesses over flavor and presentation. Together, they demonstrate four dynamic cocktails, often taking inspiration from traditional drinks.

Arnold has clear preferences for his drinks—literally. He strives for crystal clear juices, strong drinks with a minimum of dilution, and more fizz than mere seltzer alone can provide. Using technology, he addresses these challenges, remedying the inherent flaws of 200 year old practices to which most drinkers remain oblivious.

For their take on Gin and Juice, a classic combination of gin with grapefruit juice, the duo begin by clarifying grapefruit juice by dissolving 20 grams of Knox gelatin in 4 liters of fresh juice. After freezing in a 4-inch hotel pan, the block of frozen juice is allowed to strain through cheesecloth as it melts, yielding crystal clear liquid. "This is not just for appearance," elaborates Norén. "The process removes not only visible impurities but also bitterness, which improves the flavor. Then we can alter the balance by adding sugar or acid as well."

The gin and grapefruit juice are chilled, then combined in a 6:10 ratio with a pinch of salt before being transferred to a plastic 1-liter soda bottle. "You'll find salt is a secret ingredient in many of our drinks," states Norén. "It is added just below the threshold of perception of saltiness, but it helps all the flavors to balance and pop out." It also makes this recipe a nod to the Salty Dog cocktail—gin and grapefruit juice in a salt-rimmed glass.

Once in the plastic bottle, it's time to carbonate. Using a common CO2 tank and a special bottle cap designed for home brewers of beer to quick carbonate in bottle, Arnold attaches the tank, turns up the pressure to 40 psi (seltzer is at 30 psi), and shakes the bottle to dissolve gas into the drink, taking care to "blast out" the excess air at the top of the bottle before carbonating one more time. The drink is served in a Champagne flute, which Arnold has rapid-chilled by swirling a splash of liquid nitrogen around the bowl. What's wrong with using the freezer? "By using liquid nitrogen the stem is warm, the bowl of the glass is cold, but the top doesn't stick to your lip. It's the best of all worlds," boasts Arnold.

For Simon Weston, owner of drinks development company Bamboo London (London and New York City), it's the details rather than the David Copperfield showmanship that make these drinks so special. "Beyond the fancy techniques, it's the small insights, like stressing ingredient quality and prep and storage, like using ascorbic acid to preserve juice. These are techniques chefs use every day, but they're rarely found behind the bar," observes Weston.

The Swedish Invasion uses the same method of carbonation with 4 parts ice-cold Aquavit, 1 part ice-cold Dolin Blanc white vermouth, 4 parts ice-cold clarified Granny Smith apple juice, 2 parts ice water, and a pinch of salt. Unlike store-bought amber apple juice, the Granny Smith apple juice is vividly green and crisply tart, preserved and clarified by ascorbic acid and 1 gram per liter of Pectinex Smash XXL, which causes impurities to settle. "It will stay green forever," beams Arnold. By using a house-made aquavit with a heavy dose of caraway and minimal dilution, the drink is strong and intensely flavored, reminiscent of applesauce slathered on rye bread, with a pronounced, lingering licorice flavor. The garnish is a drink in itself: A vacuum machine is used to force a slightly sweetened Martini mixture into spears of cucumber. By floating the cucumber slivers in a bath of gin Martini and vacuuming to a full vacuum, the air in the cucumber is replaced by the Martini mixture. A dash of Maldon salt completes the garnish.

In re-creating the much derided alcohol delivery system known as the Long Island Iced Tea, Arnold crafted several different tea-flavored vodkas, infusing as much as 32 grams per liter of tea and redistilling the infusion into an intensely flavored, and tannic, spirit. Stir 2 parts tea liquor, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part honey, and a pinch of salt with ice in a mixing glass. The mixture is strained into a fresh glass containing prepared, purple-hued tapioca pearls.

Richard Breitkreutz, director of operations for Craft Worldwide Holdings, which includes Craftbar and Craftsteak, found inspiration in the seminar: "Like many people, I think molecular gastronomy is very cool, but it does not apply to what we do at Craft. However, the CO2 techniques are really interesting and pertain to what people are doing with making their own sodas and water. And, above all, it was great to observe their knowledge of balance and texture and aromatics in all the drinks."

For the lavishly textured Cold Buttered Rum (see Recipes & Techniques) Norén begins by making spiced butter syrup on the stovetop, using a hand mixer that sounds capable of churning through a bag of ready-mix concrete. It's actually an 18-volt drill that Arnold has mechanically mated to a hand mixer. "The bearings aren't meant to go 22,000 rpms, so it's a little noisy," shouts Arnold.

The butter syrup is combined with rum, lime juice, and salt in a shaker with ice. The drink is highly aromatic of vanilla and fresh dairy, slick and creamy on the palate, yet refreshing with lots of bright acidity to cut the richness. For the garnish, the vacuum machine whirs to life again, this time infusing pineapple spears with sweetened rum, which Norén places carefully across the rim of the glass. "That's really his favorite way to garnish. I call it the plank," quips Arnold.

"It may not be waiter-friendly, but it is user-friendly. You remove it, take a bite, then a sip. Perfection," retorts Norén.