As cocktails in top bars become increasingly sophisticated, more work is required to perfect them, and much of that preparation now happens behind the scenes. Rather than infusing fruit into vodka in a big jar sitting on top of the counter, bartenders spend time in a kitchen or laboratory using vacuum machines, tabletop stills, industrial filters, and other equipment. Ice is no longer fast-melting chunks spat out of a machine; it is frozen into specific shapes using specialized gear or hand-carved from crystal-clear blocks by professional ice carvers. A tasty daiquiri may include ingredients that were frozen with liquid nitrogen, distilled, and clarified, all to spare you from getting mint fragments stuck in your straw.
Bartenders are still using fresh and local produce, but they’re fine-tuning every aspect of the cocktails in which they’re used, from temperature to texture to physical format. In this slideshow we look at some of the cutting-edge equipment used in bars around the world.
In making infusions, tinctures, bitters, and syrups, bartenders put solid ingredients into liquids then filter them out. Conventional filtration methods include using strainers, cheese cloth, and coffee filters, but increasingly bartenders are turning to more sophisticated techniques like Buchner funnels, and at least in this case, a wine filter called a Mini-Jet. The device is made to filter white wines to remove sediment and polish the wine. At Canon in Seattle, owner Jamie Boudreau uses the Mini-Jet to filter infusions and bitters, the latter of which he offers for sale at the bar as well as using them in the drinks. Boudreau says that this filter is both faster and more thorough than other filters, though he only uses the coarsest filter pads available, as to remove sediment while retaining flavor. Currently he makes three different bitters: cherry, rhubarb, and a recreation of a long-defunct brand called Boker’s Bitters. These are used in a range of drinks, including the Fighattan with fig-infused bourbon and Boker’s Bitters.
Ranked the World’s Best Bar in 2013 for the second year in a row, The Artesian embraces opulence in its cocktail program, serving drinks like one that comes with a hovering scent balloon above the drink, and another inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray that is served behind a mirror so that you must look at yourself while you drink it. Even the ice at Artesian is fancy, carved especially for the bar with a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine something like this one. They use these machines to carve both round ice spheres out of blocks, and to emboss logos onto large ice pucks. These pucks float on top of drinks served in their giant cocktail glasses.
Many bars and restaurants now grow their own herbs, fruits, and veggies on rooftop gardens, but that’s probably challenging during the winters in Canada. Victoria bar owner Shawn Soole has installed a hydroponic system at Little Jumbo to grow produce throughout the year. The device is connected to the main water system and has lights on timers, so once they get the right sequence figured out, they can set it and forget it (until they need to reach in and pluck some for the drinks). They have grown mint to make drinks like the traditional Mint Julep and the Pontarlier Julep, plus basil to make Gin-Basil Smashes, a cocktail that’s a popular summer drink in Germany. While they’re still dialing in proper growth times with the machine, Soole says he expects to grow verbena, lemon balm and thyme for use in future cocktails.
Cocktails on tap have become a trend in recent years because customers want fancy, delicious cocktails with fresh, quality ingredients, but they don’t want to wait 20 minutes for bartenders to add drops and dashes of 12 different things in every drink. By kegging cocktails, bartenders can make a large batch all at one time and serve them as fast as they could a beer. And though many bars are now offering one or two on tap, at Tavernita they have all sorts of beer and wine, plus ten cocktails on tap, and these include ingredients like paprika-infused rye whiskey, wine-pear syrup, and BBQ bitters. The simplest way to serve a cocktail on tap is to use an inert gas like nitrogen and push it through the line as one would for wine on tap. But this only works for non-carbonated drinks like Negronis and Manhattans (and Sangria at Tavernita as well). Here they also offer some cocktails that are carbonated, like a Gin & Tonic with homemade tonic syrup, and a cachaca drink with grape soda. The kegs are all refrigerated and prepared by their ‘batchologist’ whose job is to be very exacting with preparations, measuring ingredients by weight rather than by volume. They even calculate the dilution in advance and add water to the keg depending on whether the drink will be served on ice or not.
Many bartenders have turned to sous-vide cooking techniques to speed up infusions and to improve their consistency between batches. The method involves vacuum-sealing ingredients (and booze) in plastic bags and heating them at a low, controlled temperature. At Pint & Jigger, probably Hawaii’s most progressive cocktail bar, owner Dave Newman marries sous-vide cooking with another newly popular technique: barrel-aging. Rather than mixing up a cocktail then aging it in a small barrel for a month or more, Newman purchases Jack Daniel’s wood smoking chips (made from whiskey barrels) and places them with the cocktail ingredients inside mason jars in the sous-vide bath instead. The drinks take on woody flavors, and a silkier texture after just two or three days in the sous-vide, rather than the same number of months in a barrel. Newman has made barrel-aged cocktails with this technique including the Boulevardier, Martini, Dark N Stormy, and Vieux Carre.
“Probably seventy percent of the cocktails on the menu have something in them that went through the centrifuge,” says Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax. The centrifuge is used with a surprisingly large number of ingredients, and these ingredients are put through the centrifuge depending on how they will be used in cocktails. Ultimately, the centrifuge is simply used to separate ingredients by their weight. In some cases this can function as a really good filter, as when Arnold is making almond-based syrup orgeat or filtering out the sediment of bitters. He also uses the centrifuge in the process of clarifying juices and in separating out ‘milk-washed’ spirits. For clarification, Arnold juices the fruit or citrus, adds enzymes to further break them down (sometimes adding wine fining agents as well), then spins them in the centrifuge to separate the liquids from the solids. He says this not only makes nice clear juices, it also increases the yield over just using a juicer alone. For milk-washing, he adds milk to spirits and then separates out the curdled milk chunks. (It sounds gross, but drinks like classic Milk Punches undergo this process as well, just not in a centrifuge). The milk-washed spirits take on a soft texture, and when they’re shaken in cocktails they produce a nice frothy head. The clarified juices are used in stirred drinks (typically all drinks with juices are shaken but these no longer need it) as well as in carbonated cocktails where they better retain the drink’s fizz.
A rotary evaporatoris a miniature still typically meant for chemists, which some bartenders have been using of late. In most countries it is illegal to use the equipment to produce homemade vodka, for example (in part because the government wants to collect tax on the alcohol), but in some countries bartenders are using it to create advanced-level infusions, reductions, and other liquids. In both a traditional still and a rotavap, mixtures are separated through evaporation due to their differing boiling points (usually separating alcohol from water), but in a rotavap this can be done at far lower temperatures to pull out more delicate flavors and avoid burning them. As leading molecular mixologist Tony Conigliaro of The Bar with No Name says in his book The Cocktail Lab, “What I love about the Rotavapor is that it is one of the most complicated pieces of equipment used in the lab but the products made from it are incredibly poetic.” Conigliaro operates this still to make things like horseradish vodka used in a Bloody Mary and a port wine reduction used in a drink with dark rum and grenadine. It can also be used to make non-alcoholic ingredients like orange flower water that is used in a Ramos Gin Fizz.
A super chiller, or circulating bath, quickly chills ingredients dipped into its super-cold mix of ethanol and water. At Chicago’s progressive Aviary they float water balloons in the bath for about eight minutes at -15C. This is enough to make a layer of water freeze inside the balloon. They then pop the balloon, poke a small hole in the ice sphere to suck out the liquid water in the center, and replace that with a cocktail such as the Vieux Carre. (Then to make thing extra fancy, drinkers crack open this cocktail “in the rocks” using a slingshot at the table.) Staff here also dip tall Collins glasses filled with water into the bath to allow a sleeve of ice to freeze around the inside. They then rinse the remaining slush and are left with an ice-lined glass, in which they serve carbonated cocktails, as the bubbles stay more bubbly this way. Check out this cool video of the ice program. photo by Christian Seel
So much of advanced mixology these days is working with some form of infusion, whether those are infused spirits, flavored syrups, or homemade tinctures. The most common way to make infusions is to simply let the to-be-infused ingredients soak in the liquids, or to add heat to this to speed up the process. One short-cut method is to use a nitrous oxide siphon as popularized by Dave Arnold. At the new bar/club Honeycut in Downtown LA, however, they use a chamber vacuum sealer instead. The vacuum machine is the first step in sous-vide cooking: it’s the thing that seals the food or liquids into plastic bags. But at Honeycut, bartenders Alexander Day and David Kaplan put their ingredients in a bowl rather than in a bag, and run it several times through the vacuum chamber to suck out the air inside. Day describes what’s happening, “By placing the liquid and porous ingredient in near perfect vacuum, the ingredient’s cell walls break, the liquid is pushed in to mingle, and then when everything is brought back to atmospheric pressure the liquid is pulled back out — bringing along with it a bunch of flavor. Currently at Honeycut, we use this method for Basil Vermouth, Celery Vermouth, Cacao Nib Campari, and Cacao Nib Clear Creek Pear Liqueur.” Day says they use this method when they want to bring out delicate flavors from porous ingredients without also bringing out the bitterness found in the chlorophyll of the basil, for example, which can happen when you infuse these ingredients in a traditional method.
Even the best ice cube machines make cubes that are no more than 1.25 inches square, but bartenders often want larger cubes for certain drinks. So all over the country, they’re taking matters into their own hands, buying huge blocks of clear sculpture ice and cutting it into big cubes using an electric chainsaw, run without any lubricant so as to not get grease in the glass. At the small San Francisco restaurant Hog & Rocks, Bar Manager Michael Lazar orders 50-pound ice blocks (they go through three of them each week) and cuts them into long bars that they store in the freezer. Then when someone orders a drink (they have about eight Old Fashioned variations on the menu currently) they cut a 2.5 – 3-inch cube off the block to fit perfectly into a rocks glass.