Jen-Luc Piquant and I are back from Las Vegas, a little more world-weary, and just a bit more spoiled after experiencing the delightful culinary offerings of Le Cirque restaurant at the Bellagio — sibling to the justly famed NYC eatery of the same name. (I’m quite happy with decent Chinese takeout, but Jen-Luc has very expensive tastes, and insisted on having at least one "decent meal" before taking her leave of Vegas.) Alas, the one attraction we didn’t quite get to visit was the Museum of the American Cocktail. How much more perfect a subject could one find for a a blog called Cocktail Party Physics?
Founded in New Orleans, the museum moved to special quarters in Commander’s Palace Restaurant at the Aladdin Resort and Casino after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. You can read this article in the LA Times for more detailed information, but it basically seeks to celebrate the glorious history of the cocktail in America. To that end, the founders have amassed an impressive collection of cocktail memorabilia: vintage shakers (including ones shaped like a rooster), vintage glassware, and bottles of rare booze, not to mention a copy of an article from a 1806 edition of a New York newspaper believed to be the first published definition of a cocktail. The four essential ingredients, for the sticklers among our readers, are spirits, bitters, sugar and water. The art of mixology has gotten a bit more complicated since then, but the essentials remain roughly the same.
Naturally, there is mention of Prohibition and all manner of lore and legend related to the evolution of the cocktail. (You can peruse loads of entertaining cocktail trivia at your leisure here and here.) The LA Times article, for instance, reports that while whiskey cocktails were the drink of choice early on, after Prohibition there was a shortage of this high-quality liquor, so people began combining it with soda water and ice to make highballs. The field almost never recovered from this horror inflicted by teetotalling
killjoys activists like Carry Nation (founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement), whose followers were prone to marching into bars and smashing things with hatchets — somehow managing to wave their Bibles about at the same time.
There is a scientific component to all this fizzy frivolity, although it’s admittedly got more to do with chemistry than pure physics. Really. We’re not blogging about it just because we’re in a shallow mood following yesterday’s lengthy pondering of Deep Atomic Matters. For instance, the best bartenders even as far back as the early 20th century knew how to manipulate the specific gravities of the different liquids used in cocktails to layer liquors of different densities: Bailey’s Irish Cream, for instance, can be layered over Triple Sec, while a few drops of Grenadine added to the mix will sink to the bottom of a shot glass and form a nifty "mushroom cloud," per our recipe for the Hiroshima Bomber (see sidebar). Nifty little tricks like that have spawned all manner of specialty cocktails — some of which are admittedly rather vile to all but the most booze-deadened palates.
Not content with merely preserving the past, the Museum of the American Cocktail also tries to support and inspire "creative bartending" — the creation of new and innovative drinks, sometimes using the latest in kitchen technologies. The latter is basically an offshoot of molecular gastronomy — the application of scientific principles to cooking, detailed in a prior post — and for lack of a better terminology, has been dubbed molecular mixology. The New York Times says so, even though molecular science has less to do with this new trend in mixology than the cutting-edge techniques being developed in chef’s kitchens around the globe.
These two subfields share a common father figure, the French scientist Herve This (pronounced "Teece"), author of Molecular Gastronomy. Last year This hosted a two-day experimental workshop in Paris, sponsored by the world’s oldest distiller, Bols, on this emerging discipline. Eight of the world’s top bartenders were privileged to sample instant jellies (called "pearls") created by mixing a chosen flavor composition with sodium alginate and calcium chloride; an ice cream of Bols Advocaat created with liquid nitrogen; and a twist on the standard gin and tonic: a G&T-infused jelly on a sugared lime chip, set to fizzing with bicarbonate of soda and citric acid.
This isn’t alone in his creativity. Mixologists around the world are turning cocktails into papers, foams, gels and powder, with equally creative garnishes. David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago, for instance, serves a vodka martini garnished with a lollipop made from reduced olive brine, olive flavoring and salt crystallized in isomalt — stuffed with bleu cheese for food measure. At Moto — also in the Windy City — Homaru Cantu uses a laser (of the sort normally used for eye surgery) to caramelize a wineglass with a vanilla bean prior to filling it with red wine. And here in DC, at Cafe Atlantico, you may soon be able to order a "dirty martini" made from blended olive juice, vermouth and gin, mixed with xanthum gum and calcium chloride and dropped into a solution of sodium alginate and water to form olive-shaped blobs. A single such "olive" is served in the traditional martini glass, only reverting to its liquid state when it is popped into one’s mouth.
All of this arises in part, no doubt, from the competitive drive among bartenders to constantly create and innovate. But sometimes innovation is accidental. Take the invention of "ice wine" in Germany around 1794. Legend has it that a German vineyard owner took an ill-timed vacation and wound up harvesting the grapes much later than usual, deciding to pick and process the now-frozen fruit anyway. The result was a sweet, fruity dessert wine that wasn’t produced commercially in Europe until the 1960s. It has an intense flavor because the frozen grapes are pressed immediately to extract the bits of ice, leaving behind the highly concentrated sugar and acid (which tends not to freeze). Then it’s stored in oak barrels for several months to ferment. This and his cohorts could probably make some semblance of ice wine using liquid nitrogen, were they so inclined. But I’m guessing they’re having much more fun playing around with liquid nitrogen margaritas.
So we may have failed to take in the Museum of the American Cocktail during our all-too-brief stay in Vegas, but we did (ahem) do quite well at the poker tables. (Shamless plug alert! We also returned to find ourselves featured in a lengthy Q&A interview in the fabulous Skepchick magazine.) And thanks to Jen-Luc’s insatiable curiosity and keen Cyber-eye, we nonetheless managed to learn a great deal about the new molecular mixology vicariously. (It would’ve been more fun washed back with designer cocktails, but one can’t see everything in Vegas in a single trip.)
Jen-Luc also stumbled across a fascinating post from the inebriated folks at The Daily Lush detailing a series of "Undrinkable Cocktails": things like the "bone beer" favored by certain cannibalistic South American tribes; wine fermented from army worms; a potentially fatal prison concoction called Pruno; a Yukon cocktail garnished with pickled toes; and a traditional Chinese remedy known as "Three-Penis Wine" (the male members in question derive from dogs, deer and seal). And for those addicted to nifty techie gadgets, there is the Lazy Drink programmable cocktail dispenser, which combines 16 bottles of your liquor of choice — perhaps even Pruno, army worm wine, or the dreaded Canned Heat (closely related to antifreeze), if you’re in an undrinkable frame of mind — with ice in a portable cooler. You have to hook your laptop up to the device to provide the hardware, but the system comes with software to make more than 5000 different drinks. Who says technology isn’t a mixologist’s best friend?
Finally, while browsing in the gift shop of the nearby Atomic Testing Museum, we stumbled across a delightful little 1950s-style book called Atomic Cocktails. The bulk of the book features mostly standard cocktail fare, but the "atomic" section features the Moonshot, the Ray Gun, the Apricot Fission, the Cognac Zoom, and something called the Angry Red Planet, which appears to be a variation on a Bloody Mary, spiked with wasabi and Japanese horseradish paste for a little extra kick.
Our favorite concoction has to be the Rocket Man, a flaming cocktail on a par with our own Mad Scientist (again, see our sidebar), just a wee bit more complicated in terms of one’s bartending technique. We offer the recipe below for your weekend drinking pleasure, with the usual caveat to Drink Responsibly (particularly when fire is involved), lest the ghost of Carry Nation come to haunt your dreams.
1-1/2 oz vodka
3/4 oz Galliano
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
1 cup crushed ice
1 oz 151-proof Demerara rum
1 sugar cube
1. In a blender, combine vodka, Galliano, lime juice and crushed ice. Blend until thick and slushy and pour into a 6-ounce cocktail glass.
2. Invert a teaspoon over the mixture, tip-end angled slightly down and just touching the side of the glass. Slowly pour 3/4 ounce of the rum over the back of the spoon so that the rum floats on top of the drink. Set aside.
3. Pour the remaining rum into a shot glass. Spear the sugar cube with a skewer and dip into the rum to coat.
4. Using a long-stemmed (!) match, and stretching your arms away from your body, carefully light the sugar cube and lay it on top of the rum float to ignite. When flame dies out, enjoy!