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Dave Arnold would like to fix you a gin and tonic. Sound good? It will be. It will be very, very good. It will be like no gin and tonic you have ever seen or tasted in your life. It will also be considerably more involved, shall we say, than cracking open the Tanqueray and Schweppes.
First, Arnold believes, he must clarify the lime juice. Why? Because his uncompromising conception of culinary perfection requires that gin and tonics be completely, crystalline clear, that´s why. And so, from a closet in the back of a teaching kitchen at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, behind a door labeled Caution: Nitrous Oxide in Use, Arnold wheels out a cart piled high with laboratory equipment-a rotary evaporator (rotovap) that he salvaged from Eli Lilly on eBay, cheap, and that he has jerry-rigged for just this sort of thing. At his side, FCI chef and V.P. Nils Noren supports a somewhat wobbly condenser as Arnold pours a liter of freshly squeezed lime juice, pale green and cloudy with pulp, into a teardrop-shaped Pyrex vessel. Because heat would destroy the flavors and aromas of the elixir, Arnold brings the vessel just above room temperature by partially submerging it in a bath of precisely regulated warm water. He then connects it to a vacuum so that the juice will vaporize at low temperatures.
Arnold flips the switch. The machine gurgles and hums, the vessel spins merrily, the lime vapor drifts up into the condenser, and an absolutely clear liquid begins dripping into a beaker. The result smells like lime, but it's lost much of its punchy flavor in distillation. So Arnold works to bring his clarified juice back into balance. From a series of plastic bottles, he adds 4.5 percent powdered citric acid, 1.5 percent malic acid and 0.1 percent succenic acid to the solution, places the beaker atop an electromagnetic stirrer, drops in a little Teflon-coated magnetic bar, and flips the switch. Instantly, the bar begins spinning, whipping up the liquid and dissolving the powders. Voil ! Clearlime, Arnold calls it. A touch of quinine powder and some simple syrup (2:1 sugar and water), some water, and, after a couple hours of labor, he's halfway there.
Now he custom-makes his own "gin", really just a neutral spirit infused with whatever aromatics are catching Arnold's fancy and then distilled (the latter part of which is, in fact, illegal-but hey, it's all in the name of science). Today it will be two cucumbers, celery ribs, roasted orange slices, and one bunch each of cilantro and Thai basil, all coarsely chopped and added to a fifth of Absolut vodka. Everything goes into the vessel and back onboard the rotovap, and another beaker is filled.
The two liquids are combined about 1:1, heavily carbonated with a healthy injection of CO2 (Arnold loves carbonation), and chilled for 20 minutes to a blistering cold in a freezer (he hates it when ice melts in his drinks). And so, sans rocks, sans garnish, Arnold pours the concoction into champagne flutes and serves it.
"I like my drinks stiff," he notes, and he is not kidding. This take on the G&T is, literally and figuratively, a distillation of the classic's flavors. It's a pure, Platonic ideal of the G&T, strong as a martini. The sensation is not so much of drinking something as it is of breathing it, the effervescence unusually intense and refreshing, the flavors and aromas magnified, permeating the palate and nose with a sharp, aggressive, limey crispness, underscored with soft notes of cilantro, roasted orange and cuke. And it only took three hours.
"It's a crazy level of things you have to do to get the product I want," Arnold says, "but here's what happens when you do everything possible to get something the way you want it. Yeah, sure, it's ridiculous, but. . .
You should see how he cooks a steak.
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