Remember “molecular gastronomy”? For a while, it was all the rage—until it became ubiquitous, and then it became a bit of a joke in some circles. It turns out most people don’t want to eat air that tastes like olives, nor do they want deconstructed-reconstructed eggs for dinner (at $500 a head). The techniques that came along with the trend are still with us, though, and that’s a good thing, because more tools beats fewer tools any day.
You may or may not remember that bartending went through a similar trajectory about a decade ago. The magnum opus for this trend was Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence. This James Beard Award-winning book didn’t just show people how to make obsessively-nerdy drinks; it changed the game. I’ve been digging through it lately, working on my latest secret project—and wondering why we all threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
I suppose the answer is the same as it was for the chefs: It was all too precious, too time-consuming, too much of a “meme.” Why make a milk punch that takes days, when you can come up with a punny name for something with four off-the-shelf ingredients? Why clarify juices when you can charge up to $20 for a margarita variation with jugged juice? This stuff went the way of curly mustaches, lab coats behind the bar and the word “mixology.” I hated all of that nonsense—so why the heck am I considering bringing back these techniques?
Because it wasn’t actually all that bad! Beyond the obnoxious trappings that went with it, bartenders putting science in your glass was kind of awesome. Watch any Dave Arnold presentation, and you’ll see that he is the complete opposite of what his acolytes became: He’s down to earth, funny and relatable. He deserved better than to be lumped in with pretentious hipsters.
Maybe we just got lazy. Blame COVID, labor shortages, “the supply chain” or some combination of all that—but our standards of service, food and drink have plummeted. And the industry knows you stopped caring. In reality, most of us stopped doing molecular bartending as a backlash to “man buns” long before the pandemic: Nobody was interested anymore. Like the swing revival, it had a moment and was gone, back to subcultures and boutique bars. At the time, it was “good riddance,” but as much as I reviled all of them, the truth is that “foodies,” “hipsters” and “Yelpers” kept us honest. It was better for the food and beverage scene than the influencer culture of today—100 times over.
OK, the rant is finished. Let’s get down to the educational part of the program, because you can do a lot of this stuff at home.
Want to make clear ice? Here’s a trick I learned, and, no, it doesn’t take a fancy silicone tray for $80: Just freeze tap water in an insulated mug. That’s it. Once it is half-frozen, the impurities will be in the liquid part, and the ice should be crystal clear. Use a petite cooler for larger and squarer ice. You want it to freeze like a pond, top-down—and, actually, “pond ice” was the standard for a century of colonial cocktail drinkers!
You can clarify at home, too! This was one of my first “big hits” when I brought it to the bar all those years ago. This is my basic variation on Dave Arnold’s drink Tea Time, which uses Darjeeling tea, honey syrup and citric acid to clarify. I call it the “Dave Arnold” Palmer.
- 1 1/2 ounces of milk-washed, tea-infused vodka
- 1 ounce of lemon juice
- 1 ounce of simple syrup
- 1 ounce of water (or use crushed ice)
Shake; dump into a Collins glass; garnish with a lemon wheel.
To make the vodka, infuse several bags of the tea of your choice into a liter of vodka until it’s tea-colored; then remove the bags. Pour the vodka into 250 milliliters of whole milk (not the other way around), and let sit. You want to start the curdling process by adding an ounce of lemon juice (30 milliliters) and letting it, well, curdle. The curdled proteins will be bound to the tea molecules and remove the color from the mixture. I used to leave it overnight to settle and then strain it through a coffee filter to recover most of it. You will lose a ton of product the first couple of times you do this; it’s a bit of a skill and requires patience.
Yes, you can use this same technique to make a clarified milk punch. I’m not sure why nobody does those anymore. Follow the classic rhyme: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak.” Basically make four parts tea, then add three parts of your alcohol(s) of choice (a mix of rum, bourbon, mezcal and/or high-proof liqueurs) and two parts sugar. Account for any sugar in the liqueurs as well! When the mix is room temperature, add it to milk as above, in the same 4:1 proportions. Add one part lemon or lime juice, and let it settle; strain over a coffee filter, then chill and serve in a punch cup or on a large cube. Garnish with pretty flowers or whatever adds some color back to the glass.
You can also clarify some juices at home; you just need to plan ahead. Watermelon and grapefruit are two of the better choices. Just juice and leave in bottles stored upright for a day or so. It really is that easy! The tricky part is getting the clear juice out without disturbing the sediment. A siphon works well; we can’t use a tube and our mouths at work, but it’s your party. You can use the sediment-heavy stuff for popsicles or cordials or something. Get creative.
I hope I have made myself clear: It’s time to get back to excellence. I don’t need any salmon-extract-foam beet daiquiris, but let’s demand fresh and well-crafted drinks, at least. We sure are paying for it these days.