I’ve been planning to write a blog about ‘molecular mixology’ for some time… but this isn’t it. It’s a term that has been floating around the drinks industry for a few years now, but one that has baffled me somewhat. Soon I will be sitting in on a molecular mixology workshop, and hopefully it will help me come to terms with this style of bartending, but in the meantime I thought I’d write about three bars I visited the other night, all of which have to some extent been tarred with the molecular brush.
The issue I have with the name ‘molecular mixology’ is that it seems to be used to refer to any bar or drink that is made with non-traditional methods. Put a foam on top of your daiquiri and it’s ‘molecular’, age a cocktail either in a bottle or a cask and once again ‘molecular’, dehydrate an ingredient and turn it into a powder… you guessed it, ‘molecular’. My mind tells me that we’ve chosen the wrong label for this style of bartending. Yes these are new ways of making drinks, yes they employ methods that weren’t used when Jerry Thomas was plying his trade, and yes they often lead to drinks being presented in new and interesting ways… but are they really molecular cocktails?
Before I move on to reviewing three excellent bars that present modern drinks using creative methods, I just want to dissect the term ‘molecular mixology’ and see what it means. Maybe along the way I’ll stumble across a better term for this branch of bartending, or maybe someone reading this will come up with a description that sticks.
First up is the term ‘molecular’ – it implies some scientific process being employed at the atomic or even sub-atomic level. The image that springs to mind is that of a man (or woman) in a lab coat, staring through a microscope and using scientific principles to alter the properties of a cocktail or it’s ingredients. Now there are a handful of people in the drinks industry who are looking into why certain things happen the way they do, and who are employing scientific equipment to achieve unusual results, but in general these are bartenders trying to get a new understanding of flavours, aromas and textures. It seems to me that this is simply an evolution in cocktail making. Employing new equipment and ideas in order to create drinks unlike those made by previous generations; isn’t this what each generation has tried to do? We’re no talking about scientists, but simply about bartenders trying to push the boundaries of cocktail creation.
The other term that makes up the phrase is ‘mixologist’ which is a title that many bartenders cringe when they hear. There seems to be a misunderstanding of what this term means. You see as far as I can tell a mixologist is someone who develops drinks and new flavour combinations. It has nothing to do with the art of tending bar, which to me is the craft of hosting guests, making drinks, eliciting smiles and generally making sure customers have a good time. I’m capable of coming up with new cocktails and flavour pairings, but put me behind a bar and I make it look like hard work to keep a room full of people happy and well lubricated. No that doesn’t mean I want to be called a mixologist!
So maybe ‘molecular mixology’ does exist? Perhaps in Tony Conigliaro’s lab, when he is applying his scientific understanding of production processes to create new drinks for 69 Colebrooke Row, he is in fact practicing the art of molecular mixology. Maybe at Purl when they use methods previously reserved for the like of Heston Blumenthal to deliver new aromas and textures in their drinks, this is molecular mixology. However in the moment that the drink is prepared behind the bar, by a bartender who has simply been supplied with enhanced ingredients but is using fairly tradition tools and techniques, it would be wrong, in my opinion, to say that the bartender is a molecular mixologist; he is simply a bartender presenting me a modern style of drink.
In fact in a recent blog I talked about how the bar industry will move on from the current trend of harking back to bygone eras of cocktail making and develop its own unique style; well perhaps this is the beginning of that movement. Creating drinks inspired by the classics, using the craft and skills that we have rediscovered, but using modern production methods and techniques to create our own modern era of cocktails. I would hate for us to look back in twenty years time and summarise the cocktail movement of the last five years as being ‘molecular’, but if we are able to find a term that describes the rediscovery of the craft of tending bar, but that also encompasses the use of modern equipment and methods… well then we’d be on to something.
Maybe it doesn’t need a name. Maybe it is simply a normal step along the evolutionary path of any trade or craft. The one thing I feel strongly about though is that for about 95% of what has been labelled ‘molecular mixology’ we’re using the wrong term already. Evolutionary mixology? Renaissance bartending? Postmodern cocktail crafting?… I obviously haven’t found the right term yet. So why not get involved, tell me what you think, suggest a name for our modern era of cocktail making? Let’s see if we can’t leave the term molecular in the lab where it belongs!
Hold on, didn’t I say I was going to be reviewing some bars?
There are several bars in London doing interesting things with cocktails that could easily be classified under the heading ‘molecular mixology’ but are actually just good bars using modern methods to produce interesting cocktails. So we visited Zetter Townhouse, which was masterminded by Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row fame, The Worship Street Whistling Shop, brought to you by the mad scientists who run Purl bar, and VOC, which is independently run, but which the guys behind Purl consulted for. Purl and 69 Colebrooke Row are two of the very few bars that do in fact make use of more scientific methods when developing drinks, but these newer bars seem to fill the gap between your standard cocktail bar and the more experimental cocktail dens, so while we were enjoying our drinks, we thought we’d ask the bartenders what they thought on the subject of molecular mixology.
Tucked away in the square behind the Zetter hotel on Clerkenwell road, The Zetter Townhouse is a boutique hotel with a bar like no other. Tony Conigliaro and his partner Camille run the bar, which feels like a Victorian eccentric’s living room, but serves cocktails balancing unusual flavours and ingredients. While some of the prep is done in Tony’s lab, the majority is made in the bar without the use of centrifuges and dehydrators.
Some of the ingredients may sound pretty unusual (port evaporation, gunpowder tea tincture, citrus aromatics), generally the cocktails are simply twists on classics using many homemade ingredients. The drinks are expertly made by great bartenders, who when asked about being labelled as ‘molecular mixologists’, rolled their eyes and explained that they are just good old fashioned bartenders making interesting modern drinks.
That’s a description that works for me! The tools they use are those that you’d expect to find behind any good cocktail bar, the drinks look, smell and taste as you would expect from reading their descriptions, and nothing exploded, foamed or smoked at us while we were there.
From talking to the guys behind the bar it is clear that they enjoy any chance to go to Tony’s lab and play around with new ideas, but day-to-day they see what they do as fairly standard bartending. Yes their prep involves making a lot of homemade ingredients and yes every now and then something is distilled, evaporated or dehydrated beforehand, but when it comes to making the drinks, they are stirring and shaking them just like everybody else.
They take pride in experimenting with new flavours, but that’s the case in most good bars, so don’t go there expecting crazy science experiments; go there for good cocktails, a unique menu and fantastic surroundings. Make sure to try the Nettle Gimlet and the Flintlock, they’re both stunning drinks. Oh and don’t expect to find it easy to leave, this place draws you in and makes you want to settle in for the evening!
Now this is a bar with a very different concept behind it. It’s a 17th century punch house inspired cocktail bar, specialising in barrel aged cocktails and punches. VOC stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compaggnie or the Dutch East India Trading Company to you and me. The drinks are inspired by the punches and grogs that were shipped around Asia and Europe by the VOC in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.
Barrel aged cocktails include Bergamot Grog, VOC Spiced Rum and the Veiux Carre cocktail, all of which are typically mellowed in new or used sherry casks for about 2 months. This resting period in barrels gives a soft, mellow sweetness to the drinks as well as adding a layer of complexity to them. There’s much debate about the benefits of barrel aging cocktails, and while that is a subject for another time I can tell you that the drinks we tried were fantastic.
Talking to the bar manager, he pointed out that while science can be used to understand what happens during the barrel aging process, this method of making drinks is hardly scientific. It arose several hundred years ago simply from the need to ship drinks from one area to another. The fact that grog, for example, would improve over a period of time spent in the barrel was simply a side effect of the need to store something potable onboard ships.
The bar itself is warm and inviting as well as small and intimate, which meant that we once again wanted to just settle in for the evening and work our way through the drinks list.
While the experimental bar team from PURL may have helped to develop the concept and come up with the drinks, there is once again no sign of anything ‘molecular’ happening in this bar. It is simply serving excellent drinks inspired by a bygone era when drinks were shipped around the world in barrels.
Our final stop of the evening was at The Worship Street Whistling Shop, which, of the three bars we visited, comes the closest to experimenting with science to make cocktails. They do have a small lab within the bar and you are more likely to find unusually presented cocktails here than in your average bar. That being said, the bartenders are still just that, BARTENDERS! They aren’t lab technicians conducting crazy experiments with dangerous chemicals.
There are drinks on the list that have been ‘irradiated’, sugars that have been frozen, you’ll see malic acid and chlorophyll bitters in the ingredients. So yes when it comes to the development of the drinks, they employ some pretty interesting processes. They are experimental and like pushing boundaries and, as you might expect, have drinks on their list that use methods I’ve never seen anywhere else (bottle fermented cocktails for a start!). But even with all this experimental preparation and development, when it comes right down to it, the bartenders are shaking and stirring the same as they would in any other bar.
The bar itself is in a large basement area and makes you forget the outside world. Dimly lit and featuring a blend of modern and Victorian inspired design touches, it’s a bar that could keep you happily ensconced for an entire night… maybe we should have visited one bar a night, for three nights, instead of trying to fit in 3 in one evening.
Don’t go there expecting fireworks and a show, but do expect to have your taste buds and senses played with by the unique and quirky drinks. The bartenders are still happy to have a bit of banter and a laugh and have not forgotten that it’s important for a bar to be fun and inviting. They shake drinks, entertain guests, and it just so happens that the cocktails are unusual and the prep is a lot more involved than most other bars.
Take our advice and try the Panacea cocktail, featuring whisky, honey and lavender shrub, lemon juice and sage dust. It’s delicious and perfectly balanced! The Exploded martini was fantastic too and the house gin fizz is much better than the sum of its ingredients, which include olive oil and vanilla salt. This is modern experimental bartending at its best, but is still recognisable as cocktail bartending.
So what do you think of the term ‘molecular mixology’? Is there a better term you can suggest to describe this modern experimental style that is in fashion right now? The places that do it well are those that prize well-balanced drinks and a great atmosphere over being experimental just for a bit of a show. I’m now more convinced that this style of bartending is part of the evolution of cocktails and has a huge part to play, but I hope I’ll never see the day when trained scientists in lab coats are conducting experiments on my Manhattan behind the bar, instead of a cheeky bartender giving it a bit of chat and stirring me a well made drink!