This time around, the subject of our inquiry is Modernist Mixology, which is a loose confederacy of techniques and drink building practices that leverages specialized tools and substances to create cocktails that more fanciful and…shall we say…”Extra” than what we normally encounter.
The idea for this roundup has been kicking around in my head ever since PUNCH published an article about stirring your negroni with sushi rice. And, at first glance, this is a pretty absurd headline. Sushi rice and negronis would seem to have nothing to do with one another. But as soon as my brain had about three seconds to process, I was like: “of course, NOW I see what they’re doing. That’s actually kinda smart.”
This prompted me to think about how modernist mixing techniques have been on the rise as a way to differentiate bar programs, especially post-pandemic. But from where I stand, this uptick in popularity comes with a two-headed dilemma:
- First off, people may be familiar with one or two of these techniques as popularized by a certain bar, a certain cocktail or format, or a particular show or publication. But for the most part, these techniques are understood separately, rather than as a group. And to me, that’s like staring at a couple of trees and claiming to understand the beauty of the forest.
- And secondly, if this trend continues to locate and ignite pockets of cultural and attentional fuel, such that EVEN MORE bars and consumers become obsessed with making and imbibing these tricked out, intellectual drink pieces, then it’s possible that Old Fashioneds without exotic fat washes, daiquiris that haven’t been clarified, and yes, even negronis sans sushi rice…may become the exception rather than the rule in certain markets.
I certainly don’t have the power to control who makes what and how may post about it on Instagram, but I do have the resources to offer you a slightly more zoomed out view of Modernist Mixology than perhaps you’ve experienced to-date. We’ll feature a couple of different cocktails along the way by means of example, so with that, let’s jump right in.
MODERNIST VS. MOLECULAR MIXOLOGY
First, let’s talk about this term, “modernist mixology,” and the other term that many would use with it interchangeably – “molecular mixology.” These terms are logical extrapolations of “molecular gastronomy” and “modernist cuisine,” two phrases that have been bandied about in the food world for the last 20 – 30 years.
The term “molecular gastronomy” came first and was coined by a Frenchman named Hervé This in his 1995 thesis, entitled: La gastronomie moléculaire et physique. According to This (and, let’s be honest, Wikipedia), molecular gastronomy expresses itself in three key areas:
- the social phenomena linked to culinary activity
- the artistic component of culinary activity
- the technical component of culinary activity
And we can see how that might play out in reverse order in the real world: a chef employs a certain technique that might change the way a dish or component looks or tastes, which, in turn, will affect how it’s plated and presented, which, in turn, will affect how guests experience it, share it, and communicate it to their friends and family. Indeed, it might even change the way they think about a certain dish or ingredient altogether.
Hervé This was a big science guy. He was all about using cutting-edge tech, treating kitchens like labs, and completely transforming ingredients. So for him, the molecular metaphor worked great. He really was trying to tear things down to their component parts and reassemble them again in new and dazzling ways.
But as more chefs started exploring these techniques and novel presentation methods, it became clear that the term “molecular” had its drawbacks. It kinda sucked the warmth and the soul out of the pursuit, to a certain extent. And it almost demanded that something on the plate needed to be dehydrated, or gelled, or powdered, or crystalized in order for a dish to be valid. So about 10 years after This started championing “molecular gastronomy,” a number of chefs, including Nathan Myrvhold, Ferran Adria, and David Chang, began to favor a slightly more generous term: “modernist cuisine.”
Now, for the purposes of this episode, we’ll stick with that second wave and adopt the term “modernist mixology” for two primary reasons: A.) it doesn’t let us become lazy and simply assume that something really technical or complicated needs to happen in a lab setting, and B.) it allows this constellation of tools, ingredients, and methods to age and transform gracefully. After all, what’s modern is simply what’s happening in the present, and that means it’s a term for all times and seasons.
Case in point: the age-old practice of clarification.
If you’ve been a fan of the podcast for a while, it’s likely – nay, almost inevitable – that you’ve sampled or tried your hand at making a clarified milk punch. The key element that it operates upon is “surprise.” You take a sip of some chilled, limpid, perhaps lightly tinted liquid, and you’re greeted with a rich, creamy mouthfeel that doesn’t seem like it should belong to the contents of your glass.
Of course…there’s nothing new about Milk punch. It’s been around for hundreds of years. Ben Franklin had a very famous recipe for it that people still use today. But like so many products and techniques, things go in and out of vogue. Once we got our hands on refrigeration technology, we didn’t NEED to clarify things to make them shelf-stable like milk punch, so it largely went by the wayside until it was rediscovered during the cocktail renaissance. So although clarification is totally a modernist mixology technique, we can’t claim that it’s new at all.
For a great rundown on clarified milk punch, you should check out our two-part interview with Eamon Rockey, creator of Rockey’s Milk Punch, in episodes 213 and 214. Here’s Eamon describing the one trick that will allow you to create perfectly clear milk punch at home. And check out this video to learn how to make it the HARD way.
Granted, there are definitely more “molecular” styles of clarification, which are probably best described and summarized in Dave Arnold’s seminal text, Liquid Intelligence. These include agar clarification, where you turn your liquid into a gel, which allows solids to be separated, racking using a separatory funnel, which permits you to separate the heavy sediment in the bottom of a settled juice from the clear liquid at the top, and even the use of culinary centrifuges, which physically spin the solids out of suspension in a liquid.
Most of these methods are out-of-reach for home bartenders due to space and cost constraints, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go to our favorite high-end modernist cocktail joints and enjoy them courtesy of our better-funded professional colleagues.
The logical bedfellow of a clarified cocktail is a “washed” or “infused” cocktail, where something is added rather than removed from one or more ingredients.
In the wild, you’re most likely to encounter this as a drink with a “fat washed” ingredient. This is achieved by combining the usually liquefied form of pretty much any fat – from olive oil, to bacon fat, to beeswax – with a cocktail component (usually the base spirit), then allowing the fat to congeal and form a “puck,” which can then be removed. In the end, you’re left with the flavor of that fat source, and a whisper of the rich, unctuous texture, but you’re not actually drinking a mouthful of oil.
The drink and the venue that put this technique on the map was the Benton’s Old Fashioned developed by New York bartender Don Lee at the famous PDT (which, for those who aren’t in the know, stands for Please Don’t Tell). It’s a stunningly simple drink – something you can make at home almost without a second thought. You just combine 2 oz of bacon fat washed bourbon (the original used Benton’s bacon, thus the name) with ¼ oz of Maple Syrup (which is 2:1 sugar to water, so it acts like a rich simple), and a few dashes of bitters.
I did a reel about a year ago demonstrating how to make a bacon fat washed Old Fashioned, which I’ll post over on the show notes page for this episode. This is basically a shot-for-shot remake of the Benton’s Old Fashioned, except I’m cheap and I used boring simple syrup instead of maple. I’m sure my Canadian ancestors are rolling in their graves.
But, bacon fat aside, the REAL reason why I bring up “washed” drinks is because there’s a recent trend that involves stirring your negroni with a couple bar spoons of uncooked sushi rice. Like so many of trends, it’s covered by PUNCH magazine in an article that I’ll link to in the show notes, and which has been making the rounds on our community discord server. So email me and request a link to join if you’d like to see what other folks are saying.
Essentially, instead of fat washing a single ingredient, this approach involves starch washing the entire cocktail. The sushi rice method perfectly embodies modernist mixology because it uses an unusual ingredient to transform an otherwise familiar drink, and it comes with the added bonus of getting to watch your bartender stir a drink with rice in it. Watching all those little white grains swirl around is altogether different than watching someone stir a normal negroni – so it takes you out of the normal presentation – and the end product is going to be a bit hazy due to the starch from the rice.
Now, there are also examples of bartenders toasting rice to evoke certain nuttier flavors and aromas and then using that rice to infuse a falernum, which would then be used in a shaken drink. So let’s not make the mistake of assuming that this procedure is strictly limited to negronis and other stirred cocktails.
But before we move on to discuss other modernist techniques, I want to read you the recipe for the negroni riff that the aforementioned PUNCH article is inspired by, and hopefully it can work as a sort of cautionary tale for Modernist Mixology.
The cocktail’s name is the “Negroni de Nubes,” and it was developed by a trio of bartenders at the Brooklyn bar, Leyenda.
To make it, you’ll need:
- 1 1/4 ounces un-smoked mezcal
- 1 ounce blanc vermouth, preferably Dolin
- 3/4 ounce strawberry infused Suze-Cappelletti mixture
- 1 dash saline
- 2 tablespoons uncooked rice
Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, stir until well chilled and diluted, then strain into a rocks glass over a large cube, garnish with a grapefruit twist, and enjoy.
Now, one way to describe this cocktail would be, in a word, brilliant. It’s painstakingly formulated. Each ingredient bears a personal touch, from the strawberry infusion of the split-modifier amaro, to the use of white vermouth instead of dry or sweet, to the restraint required to opt for a non-smoked mezcal. Everything is so intentional that, if presented with this cocktail by one of its creators, you almost couldn’t help but feel that it represents the apotheosis of the bartending craft.
Another way to describe it would be: overly-precious. I personally don’t know what about this drink is supposed to be a negroni. There’s no gin. It’s not equal parts. I don’t understand why we need saline except as a virtue signal to imply that the person making it knows something you don’t. And every ingredient feels shoehorned in to make up for the idiosyncrasies of all the other “creative” choices. The only thing that really makes sense to me, in the end, is the grapefruit twist garnish.
A negroni is supposed to be simple. That’s one of the pleasures of drinking one. And without the eerie artificial yellow of Suze, the plasma-pink hue of strawberry, and the haze from the sushi rice, a regular negroni is beautiful enough when served over a nice, clear rock.
So the choice is yours; you can choose to view the Negroni de Nubes as a modernist mixology marvel, or, like me, you can ask the age old question: if every plank in the ship of Theseus is replaced with a part from the Death Star, can it still be called the ship of Theseus?
Next up on our modernist mixology hit list is a set of techniques that leverage water’s most cocktail-friendly property to transform ingredients and flavor profiles.
I like to refer to this category as “Freeze/Thaw,” but it’s actually derived from an age-old practice known as “jacking,” from which we derive the word “Applejack.” This is when farmers would leave hard cider out in the cold to freeze, then remove the ice from it, leaving a more concentrated (i.e. boozy) end product.
But, as deep-freeze technology has improved, it’s now possible to subject spirits to such cold conditions that we can remove the water content from them almost entirely, and then REPLACE that water with something else – like perhaps a fruit juice or some other flavored water product like coffee.
This practice has come to be known as “Switching” or “Switch Finishing,” and it was pioneered by our past guest Iain McPherson of Panda & Sons in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here’s Iain describing the process.
In addition to breaking spirits down into their “lego-like” components and switching them around, freeze-thaw can also be used to transform ingredients using pressure. Using a process he has since developed called “Sous-pression” Iain freezes spirits and whole fruit in 2L stainless steel kegs. When everything freezes solid, the flavor from that fruit leaches into the drink as the cells burst from the pressure. So as you can see, the power of freezing has a lot of potential when it comes to making our familiar cocktails a little bit more interesting.
As a little rider comment on the whole notion of freezing, I should note that perhaps the most common technique you’ll see at bars is the use of liquid nitrogen to chill down glassware and ingredients. In his book, Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold describes a technique called “nitro-muddling,” where he uses liquid nitrogen to freeze delicate herbs (like basil, for example) so that they don’t release the more soapy, bitter polyphenols when they’re smashed and incorporated into a drink.
But yeah. In most cases, you’re simply going to see bartenders using liquid nitrogen to chill down your glassware. And you know what? I’m not one to turn down a perfectly chilled glass. And neither should you.
So let’s see. So far we’ve talked about clarifying, fat and starch washing, and all the crazy things you can do with freeze/thaw methods. What could possibly be left to cover? Well, how about air? What happens when you play around with different ways to aerate your drinks?
By way of demonstration, let’s take a look at a famous drink from yet another famous New York bar. The bar is Bar Dante, and the drink is their legendary Garibaldi cocktail. To make it, you need, very simply:
- 1.5 oz Campari
- 4 oz Fresh squeezed orange juice
In a highball or Collins glass with ice, add the campari, then top it up with the orange juice, garnish with an orange wedge, and enjoy.
Here’s the thing, though: you gotta spin that orange juice in a high-speed blender, maybe with a cube or two of ice, until it’s niiiiice and frothy. This is a technique known as citrus fluffing, and it can be done using everything from orange, to grapefruit, to pineapple juice.
Essentially, the air opens up the aromas of the citrus juice and creates a cloud-like texture that really allows you to slow down and savor this low-ABV sipper.
There are two main things to say about citrus fluffing by way of analysis. The first is that it’s one of the easier techniques to execute at home. Most of us have blenders, right? And the second is that it’s one of those techniques that don’t result in a wholesale reimagining of the drink. After all, the ingredients are the same. There’s nothing added or taken away. But the changes to appearance and texture are nonetheless meaningful, and they can really decide the difference between a B+/A- drink and one that dazzles with an A++
Speaking of stuff you can do with air in a cocktail, we would be remiss if we didn’t address the trend that had everyone talking a few months ago when the Netflix show “Drinkmasters” aired. That’s right, it’s time to talk about foams and “airs.”
Now, right off the bat, my question was: what’s the difference? Are foams and airs made of different things? Is one lighter or heavier than the other? Or are they just two different ways of saying the same thing?
First, let’s talk about what they have in common. Both foams and airs employ thickening or foaming agents to create bubbles that sit on the top of a cocktail – or, in perhaps a more culinary application, that can be served alongside the cocktail. Generally this is done with the help of a substance known as a “surfactant,” which decreases the surface tension in liquids. Think about it, the less surface tension there is, the easier it is for those delicate little bubbles to keep from popping.
When it comes to differences, the primary one is that foams tend to be thicker. And that can mean that the bubbles are smaller and less airy, OR that it sets up as creamier and more rigid, sitting on TOP of the drink instead of merging and dissolving in…or, it can mean both of those things. Because cocktail airs are lighter and do have that side-effect of dissolving and sorta breaking down over time, they tend to be made a la minute and separately from the drink, then added on top right at the moment of service.
The classic example of foam in the mixed drinks world is to use an egg white or aqua faba to make a nice rich head on your whiskey sour or clover club cocktail by employing the dry shake or reverse dry shake method. Nothing fancy there – just good, classic mixology. However, certain modernist ingredients and tools have emerged to make this process even easier and…well, foamier.
The big one that you’ll hear about a lot is called Lecithin, and I personally found the first couple sentences on the Wikipedia page to be extremely helpful in understanding this class of compounds. It reads:
Lecithin (from the Ancient Greek λέκιθος lékithos “yolk”) is a generic term to designate any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances occurring in animal and plant tissues which are amphiphilic – they attract both water and fatty substances (and so are both hydrophilic and lipophilic), and are used for smoothing food textures, emulsifying, homogenizing liquid mixtures, and repelling sticking materials.
So, a lot of Greek in that blurb, but the big takeaways is that these substances can be isolated from either animals or plants – great when taking dietary constraints into account – and they solve the classic problem of oil and water not wanting to mix.
Now, in practice, using ingredients like lecithin, or other similar thickeners like agar agar or gelatin, is that they all need to be incorporated into the foam with different ratios, relative to the other ingredients. That means foams and airs end up being more like baking, where precision is everything, so you’re going to want to get yourself a very sensitive kitchen scale – something that can register a change of at least 0.1 grams – if you want to start playing in this world.
The other elephant in the room when it comes to foams and thickeners is that fancy, shiny metal contraption that has a nitrous gas adapter and spits out really consistent, culinary-grade foams. Our friend Nick over at Cocktail Chemistry has a great video on how to use these tools, which are known as EC or ISI whippers, so we’ll be sure to link to that over on the show notes page.
Depending on what you put in them, EC whippers can produce foams with a varying degree of textures. But when it comes to something this technical, I’m going to recommend that you do some serious outside research in the form of reading and YouTubing before you decide to invest in one for home use.
Of course, the delight of using cocktail foams and airs is that you can create a dichotomy of flavors in the glass – one flavor sitting next to another that then transform as they gently merge. And to wrap up our modernist mixology medley, we’re going to stay on the subject of flavor dichotomy by exploring a method called “spherification.”
This technique is probably the most overtly “molecular” in this entire episode because it involves a very dramatic and very visual chemical reaction that takes place when two compounds are mixed. The result that bartenders are driving for in this scenario is to generate tiny little spheres (almost caviar-like) that can be used as a flavored garnish or component in a drink. Here’s past guest Calsin Hoyle explaining how the process works.
To get a bit more in the weeds – and I do mean weeds since sodium alginate is derived from seaweed – you can essentially drive for one of two outcomes in the spherification world:
- One big sphere with lots of liquid inside, or
- A bunch of little spheres with little-to-no liquid inside
The only things you need to manipulate are which compound gets dropped into which, and, of course, the amount of liquid you drop in at a given time. So in the case of the caviar, you’re dissolving your sodium alginate into the liquid you want to spherify (usually some sort of juice or sweet liquid), then using something like an eyedropper, a syringe, or a squeeze bottle to drop tiny drops into a bath of calcium salt (this can be something like calcium chloride or calcium lactate). If you’re looking to make a single large sphere, you just flip the process. You dissolve the calcium salt into what you’re looking to spherify, then drop a bigger, more consolidated amount of that liquid into a sodium alginate bath. This is known as “reverse spherification.”
Unlike foams, which have a pretty standard, obvious service method, you really need to think about what you’re trying to achieve with spherification. If you’re making caviar, you need to think about where and how it’s going to be served – essentially, how the guest gets it into his or her mouth – and what flavors you’re looking to evoke when it gets there. And in the case of the large cocktail spheres, well…the problem is that it doesn’t really look like a cocktail, and you can’t really serve it in a glass. This means that you’ve got to put a lot of thought into things like context, plating, and the narrative that you’re going to present to the guest when you serve it. Otherwise, the experience might be a bit confusing.
But hey – if there’s one thing I truly admire about the Modernist or Molecular mixology and gastronomy worlds, it’s that they take risks with ingredients. And with enough time, practice, and experimentation, both professional and home bartenders can use these tools and strategies to develop creations that truly move the cocktail world forward.
I’m Eric Kozlik. I hope this overview of Modernist Cocktail Techniques was useful for you. And if you’d like to continue the conversation, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can send you a link to join our community Discord server, where all the fun of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast happens in between episodes.
But until next time, may your milk punches be perfectly clear, your foams rich and creamy, and your negronis ricey…or not. Cheers.