Tag Archives: science

Cocktails and Science

In previous posts I’ve outlined my love of food science, and of Harold McGee particularly. And of course, my affection for cocktails is welldocumented. So it will come as no surprise to hear that when I had the opportunity to hear the man himself talk about the science of cocktails, I was all over it.

I gave the heads up to my friend Jess, another avid cocktail fan, and we set out to get schooled. Joining Mr.McGee was Dave Arnold, the Director of Culinary Technology at The French Culinary Institute. Basically, the way the lecture worked was that Dave would do something crazy onstage, usually involving fire, then hand out the resultant samples while Harold would talk about the science of taste and the physical properties of alcohol. In other words, it was awesome.

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This was bourbon mixed with the very essence of banana – banana juice, if you will. It was uncanny.

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Scotch with all of its impurities removed (but not its flavor). It was weird – the skeleton of Scotch.

The best part of the night came when Dave made his recipe for Red Hot Ale, a drink that dates back to Colonial times. First, he demonstrated the method with a hot poker – the drink was traditionally made by sticking irons from the hearth into a mug.
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Clearly, that’s no longer a practical option, so Dave invented his own hot poker. Alas, it’s not really ready for the average bar just yet.

So then he showed us his stove-top method, which was…dramatic.
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That’s Harold and a lab assistant, singeing off their eyebrows.

This was easily the most delicious drink of the night, despite (because of?) the fireworks. Here’s a recipe if you’re interested – I’ll admit I have a slight fear of burning alcohol. Maybe one day I’ll get brave enough, though, because the caramelized beer and cognac is truly remarkable.
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They also played around with making stable oil emulsions with pumpkin seed oil, making for a thick, fatty drink that won’t separate:
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A combo of gum arabic and xanthan gum achieves this magic. I wasn’t incredibly into this particular drink, but the idea of making truly stable emulsions is intriguing – perhaps a different oil would have been more enjoyable.

My favorite actual science moment of the night came when Harold explained why adding water to spirits like whiskey enhances its flavor – something that has always fascinated me. Essentially, it all comes down to the fact that ethanol, the alcohol we drink, attracts aroma molecules. Aroma molecules (remember, most of taste is really smell) hang out little molecular cages on the ethanol because they’re similar in structure to it.This stops them from reaching your nose. On the other hand, they HATE water. When you add water to a drink you drop the concentration of the alcohol and these aroma compounds, break free from their cages for us to enjoy. Here’s a more coherent explanation from Harold himself.

Speaking of which, this post took me so darn long to get out that I’m leaving it mostly pictures. Here’s a better recap of the actual science at the lecture by Frederick Yarm, who is a far more dedicated cocktail blogger than I am. (If you are at all interested in mixology, and especially if you live in Boston, you should be reading his blog.)

Harvard does a whole series of these lectures using McGee’s On Food and Cooking as the text, and the guest lectures, all by amazing chefs and food scientists, are open to the public. If you’re local to Cambridge check them out!

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Chemistry Experiments

I am a wannabe chemist.
When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in REMS^2, a program for students who were gifted in math and science.  My prospective major in college was biochemistry.  I was a total science geek.

Alas, I was more gifted in the abstract concepts of science than in the practical work, and not at all gifted in math.  Biochemistry was not for me, and I soon found fulfillment and significantly better grades in the subject that everyone thought I’d have chosen in the first place; namely, English.  While I don’t regret the switch, I still really like science, but take it in mostly via its pop-cultural forms.  I listen to RadioLab, and read books like Parasite Rex (which is amazing and gross) and Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body.  I am a dilettante supreme.

It was a book called On Food and Cooking that made me realize that the kitchen is a lab, too, and I am much better at navigating it than one filled with Bunsen burners and test tubes.   Harold McGee’s ruminations on Maillard reactions and the interesting chemical properties of milk was just the first step – chefs like Ferran Adria and Wylie Dufresne take this a step further, of course, with actual chemistry experiments in the kitchen.  Unlike these gentlemen and their disciples, I have very little interest in buying sodium alginate and food dehydrators to make bizarre-but-beautiful deconstructions of common foods.  However, I mentioned in this post, I have a fondness for cocktails and cocktail culture.  Alcohol is a chemical!

So, I decided to go beyond just following the recipes for drinks I like, and start making my own.  It’s been an interesting process.  Some ideas fall flat because of the wrong ingredients – I’ve learned that I just don’t LIKE creme de cacao.  Other times I’ve been stymied by the appropriate water balance – the other night I made a drink that tasted horrible until the ice melted because I didn’t mix it with enough in the first place.  Through it all, though, I get all of the thrills of experimentation and discovery with none of the fear of explosions – and a very manageable amount of math.

Here’s a very simple recipe I started out with – just a flavor addition to a classic.  I’ll post more successes as they come!


Lavender Collins

2.5 oz Hendricks Gin (the floral notes of Hendrick’s work better than other gins, I find)

1 oz fresh lemon juice (don’t be lazy, squeeze the danged lemon)

.75 oz lavender syrup (I tried doing it with muddled lavender, but there were bits.  No one likes bits)

Club Soda

Lavender sprig for garnish

Shake everything except the club soda.  Strain into a collins glass filled with ice.  Top with club soda, add the lavender sprig, and you’re good!

This is adapted from the recipe in The Joy of Mixology, my cocktail textbook.  If you have any interest in cocktail science I strongly recommend this book!