There comes a point when, as a bartender, you wonder how you're going to develop your skills. You've mastered the shaker and the mixing glass and between the internet, the bookshelf and the six different apps on your iPhone, you're pretty much covered for recipes. It's at this point that molecular mixology starts looking intriguing.
Put simply, I dabble - a foam here, some roasted citrus zests there. These little trips outside the standardised tradition have always been interesting, but in general I've struggled with reconciling them into my own personal toolset.
Beyond that, I've struggled with the term. The phrase "molecular mixology" just doesn't sit well. While the word mixology is almost certainly here to stay - there isn't another word that adequately describes the topics I cover here as neatly - the molecular part is more troublesome. I've never had the impression that the things I've seen presented under the "molecular" banner have been approached on a strictly molecular level.
That said, it seems clear that ingredients and techniques from outside of the traditional means of production for mixed drinks are becoming more and more popular. There are the methods that we're familiar with for mixing drinks - combining ingredients with or without ice (shaking, stirring, building, layering, throwing), or with heat (hot water, or fire) - and there are the ingredients that we consistently refer to: spirits, liqueurs, fortified or aromatised wines, fruit juices, sugars, so on. In my head, these all settle together into a specific school. I call it the Classical model of mixology.
We can easily define the Classical model but its successor - let's call it the Post-Classical model - is much harder to pin down, if its various components can be said to comprise a coherent toolset at all.
So, where to start?
There's an age-old bartender trick that gets pulled out when we're asked to create something on short notice. Making a small change to an existing recipe can provide interesting results. An easy example within the Classical model would be the Victorian Mojito - take a standard Mojito, change the rum to gin and the soda to pressed apple juice, and all of a sudden, it's a different thing. It is - at the same time - reminiscent of the original and different from the original.
It's as good a place to start as anywhere else. Let's take a simple recipe: the Daiquiri. There are only three components to deal with - spirit (rum), sweet (sugar syrup), and sour (lime) - and they are combined easily enough, through shaking.
If there's one idea that's been eating away at me for a while, it's the possibility of crystal clear, stirred, sour drinks. In general, it's an idea that has been difficult to execute because fresh citrus juices (the predominant sour agents in the Classical mixology model) are translucent rather than transparent. There are, however, two options for overcoming this limitation. The Cooking Issues blog of the French Culinary Institute has detailed a relatively simple method of clarifying lime juice using agar agar. This method also has the benefit of not requiring the use of a $20,000 centrifuge, but for now I'm going with the alternative.
That alternative is citric acid, which is easily available in powdered form. The problem with is that compared against clarified lime juice, it has one flavour and only one flavour: sour. Clarified lime juice is a spectacularly complicated combination of aromatic compounds (one of which is, of course, citric acid) and it is that combination that creates the collage of tastes that the human brain interprets as "lime". Adding citric acid to a drink makes it sour but in order to make it taste of citrus we need to compensate for its lack of those other compounds. The easiest thing is to add something with those flavours - limoncello is the obvious choice, though for our stirred, transparent daiquiri a homemade lime-zest-cello might be worth a try.
At any rate, it's not a difficult drink to make and the disconnect between what we imagine a stirred, clear drink will taste like and what this specific stirred, clear drink tastes like always makes for interesting reactions. At its simplest level, though, this is uncannily similar to a daiquiri while being uncannily different from a daiquiri at the same time. It's a neat trick, given that there are at most three changes from the Classical daiquiri recipe - stirred, not shaken; citric acid and limoncello in place of lime juice. I'm not sure if it's an exciting way of approaching sour drinks or little more than an interesting gimmick, but it's a start.
60ml white rum (I used Bacardi Superior Heritage Ltd Edition)
10ml limoncello (homemade)
Half a barspoon powdered citric acid
5ml sugar syrup
Combine the first three ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until the citric acid is fully dissolved. Add sugar syrup to taste - before adding ice - to balance sweet/sour flavour. Add ice and stir for about 45 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a twist of lime zest.