Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 1
Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 2
Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 3
Tales of the Cocktail Recap Part 4
Of all the seminars I attended down at Tales of the Cocktail, the most memorable had to be a seminar called Bax vs. Clift: Progressive Cocktail/Cooking Techniques. It was also the one I had been most anticipating. The seminar was a foray into the still barely explored frontier of molecular mixology and gastronomy (the application of scientific techniques, chemistry in particular, to the craft of food and drink) with a particular focus on where the two crafts intersect.
The seminar was led by mixologist Matthew Bax and chef Ryan Clift, the duo behind Singapore's groundbreaking Tippling Club. It was their first ever presentation in the states, so the audience got a rare opportunity to sample some of the wizardry performed at their restaurant, a place most will never get a chance to visit.
The duo's philosophy, which I found to be a novel one, is basically to create a new model for food and drink pairing. Traditionally food and drink pairing (which most often means food and wine pairing) focuses on the idea that certain dishes are optimally paired with certain beverages (and vice-versa) because they are mutually complementary, and thereby create a culinary experience that's superior than just having the food or beverage item by itself--a wonderful idea no doubt.
The Tippling Club, however takes it a step further by positing that the food and beverages they pair together are more than mutually complementary, they are in fact bound together by mutual necessity. In other words, they complete each other in a way that if you take one piece away, what is left actually tastes incomplete and imbalanced.
Take the case of an apple-infused calvados and foie gras pairing which we were served. Taken together one experiences the flavor of traditional apple pie, but taken separately the cocktail tastes overly sweet and the foie gras tastes bitter. I found this to be a really simple yet fascinating concept.
I neither know, nor do I understand, enough of the voodoo that took place before my eyes to be able to explain to you in any further detail the scientific or chemical processes involved, but I do have pictures, which are probably worth a whole lot more.
When we first arrived, there were small cups at each seat with 3 grapes and a piece of mint in each cup. It turns out they were Bourbon carbonated grapes meant to mimic the flavor of a a Mint Julep.
Next up was a reinterpretation of the classic New Orleans Sazerac, but instead of rinsing the glass with absinthe in the traditional manner, it was poured from a bottle in the form of a fog over the drink.
Once the elementary stuff was out of the way, they moved on to demonstrate their concept of food and beverage pairing which I explained. Above, a molecular Michelada. Below, the calvados (apple brandy) cocktail with apple flavor infused via sous-vide (left), when combined with the foie gras and crumble (right), produced the flavor of apple pie.
Dehydrated berries were sliced into small pebble pieces and combined with something that looked like dehydrated milk and dry ice, to which was added Champagne to create an adult version of a childhood favorite, Fruity Pebbles.
We finished off with simple (by their standards) Old Fashioneds with orange peel smoke floating on top. The interesting thing is they were actually quite disappointed because they said most of what they wanted to bring was confiscated by customs, and so what they created for us was done a bit on the fly, and not up to their usual standards. I don't think anyone of us would have been the wiser.
Some people are turned off by the concept of molecular mixology/gastronomy, perceiving it as too fancy, impractical, and ultimately synthetic in a way that seems to run counter to the principles of craft mixology. As my friend and fellow bon vivant Fredo Ceraso of Loungerati expressed to me recently (and I'm paraphrasing), people don't need absinthe gummy bears, fancy foams on their cocktails, or have to dig out little liquid-filled pearls of "caviar" at the bottom of their drinks.
I recognize some of the merits of these arguments, especially when it comes to practicality, as some of these dehydrators, sous-vide machines, and other technical gadgetry run in the tens of thousands of dollars, placing them stratospheres above the budgets of even most high end cocktail bars. However I still believe guys like Bax, Clift, Dufresne (WD-50), and Freeman (formerly of Tailor), are doing important work in the world of culinary arts. Pushing the envelope and expanding the edges of the mixological universe can only be a net positive in my view.
First, it brings mixologists a step closer toward getting the same recognition and respect traditionally accorded to chefs. Secondly, it raises the stakes and forces others to step up their game and raises the bar of what constitutes above-average; the great risk becoming just good, and the good risk becoming mediocre, lest in turn they innovate. As Matthew Bax himself summarized (again I paraphrase), the point is not that everyone needs to start practicing molecular mixology, but that it's time to see if we can do something beyond pre-Prohibition cocktails, as wonderful as they may be.
Go to www.baxvsclift.com for more eyebrow-raising photos of the unique magic performed at The Tippling Club.
Look out for the 6th and final part of my recap of Tales of the Cocktail tomorrow, featuring the New Amsterdam Gin Competition, which I also competed in.
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.