From Vanity Fair, 1/35:
Cheers, everyone, and thanks for reading. Happy 2010!
Two weeks ago, I was in the Riverdale section of da Bronx, getting all mad scientist in Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab. Junior’s a consultant and former bartender who created the Liquid Lab in a Riverdale apartment, as a facility where he can create and test new recipes for cocktails and food flavored with spirits. The Lab is stocked with thousands of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, mixers, and bitters–many of which are otherwise unavailable in the United States.
Junior’s wife, Heidi, had warned me in advance that I needed to start my day with a hearty breakfast, to provide a base for all the spirits and cocktails I’d be tasting. So after a hearty repast, I caught the subway up to the Bronx. When I arrived at the Lab, I met my fellow attendees: bartenders from Drink and Craigie on Main in Boston, and drink slingers from Hotel Delmano, Pranna, and Eleven Madison Park in New York. Rounding out the group was Village Voice writer Chantal Martineau, who’s beaten me to the roundup scoop, with her writeup here. We signed a release form (no photography or video allowed, which is why I have no pix of my own here), donned lab coats, and got ready to go.
All photographs are the property of The Liquid Chef Inc. and are used with permission.
First up, though, was a true breakfast of champions: punch-spiked cereal. Talk about yer basic snap-crackle-burp!
Next, Junior launched into a section he called Aroma Architecture. He passed around various herbs and greens, and urged us to sniff and taste each one, to think about using their flavors in cocktails, and also to think about how similar flavors come through in the taste of certain spirits. Some of these herbs are relatively common cocktail ingredients–mint, sage, dill, hibiscus. Others were surprising, but upon tasting them in this context, I could start to make some connections between my salad plate and my mixing glass; among these were baby chard, baby kale, carrot greens, borage, and pea shoots. When we started down this road, I knew I was in for a great time at the Lab because I knew I’d be tasting new flavor combos all day long.
Then we got into the heart of the Lab. Now, if you’ve never been, let me explain how it works. Junior secures sponsors for each Lab, for both base spirits and liqueurs. Each Lab is broken into five flights and mixing sessions. For each flight of base spirit, you blind-taste five examples of that spirit and discuss the flavors and aromas with Junior and your fellow participants. So, for example, you taste five piscos or five gins. Then you get to mixing with that base spirit.
The rules of the Lab are, you make two drinks per base spirit. Each of your two drinks must include the sponsor’s product, plus at least one of the sponsor liqueurs. Any other ingredients are your choice, using any spirit, liqueur, herb, spice, bitter, syrup, salt, or garnish that Junior has available. You mix up one drink, divvy it up among nine tiny cups, and distribute those out to Junior and the other guests (leaving one for yourself, of course).
How many? Let’s rock some mathemagics now. For each base spirit, you’re mixing two cocktails, which means that over the course of the day, you’re creating 10 new cocktails. Eight other people in the room are mixing 10 drinks a piece (including Junior), and you’re tasting every single cocktail. Including your own drinks, that adds up to 90 cocktails. Zam! Now, each taste is only about half an ounce, but that still means, if you actually drink each one instead of just taking a sip, you’re consuming about 45 ounces of cocktail over the course of a day. That’s roughly 15 full-size drinks. Luckily for us, we had ample supplies of bottled water, but now you see why Heidi urged us all to have a large breakfast first.
Our base spirits, in order, were pisco, cachaça, rum, tequila, and mexcal. In each category, Junior had bottles of the spirit on its own, and he had several infused bottles. You could choose to use the plain spirit or one (or more) of the infusions. I wish I could tell you what I mixed up for these spirits, but I simply can’t remember, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because to be honest, my drinks weren’t that good. The thing you have to understand is that the Lab is fast-paced; I mean lightning fast. I was around professional bartenders here, who serve some of the top restaurants and bars in the Northeast.
In a very short time, we had to choose between the plain spirit and the infused options (tasting if you wished before you decided), then choose the liqueur, and then track down a third ingredient and anything else we wanted in there, and not just once, but twice. For an amateur, it was a challenge. I tried to get creative; I was grabbing bottles and herbs and whatever, just to see what worked together and what didn’t. Tequila, coca liqueur, and ginger-hibiscus syrup, with muddled electric Szechuan buttons? Why the hell not, what have you got to lose? (A bartender from Eleven Madison teased me at one point: “Why not use that? No one likes your drinks anyway.” At least, I think she was teasing.)
But when I said my drinks weren’t that good–well, I don’t really know whether they were or not. It was a little beside the point, in a way. I mean, yeah, you want to make good drinks whenever you pick up a shaker. But often the cost of creating a really great drink is mixing your way through many bad ones first, until you find the right notes. I do know that at one point, I was playing with the tequila, and I paired it with Combier triple sec and something else. I realized the balance was off and added lime juice. Then I smacked myself in the head when I realized I had reinvented the fucking Margarita. Dammit!
My problem was, I was a little cowed by the talent around me, and I was letting it get to me, and starting to play it safe. After the fucking Margarita, I started taking chances again and having more fun as a result.
At one point, Junior passed around plates of edible cocktails, and these were fun and surprising:
The truffle, of course, was amazing, but I think my favorite “edible” was the pisco-sour marshmallow, which really captured the essence of a pisco sour. Lunch, served I think after the cachaça round, was an amazing spread of booze-infused food. Here are just a few examples:
Traditionally, Junior and Heidi then take everyone out for dinner and drinks. We wound up in the Bar Room at The Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant connected to the Museum of Modern Art. This was a little heady for me, since the only other Danny Meyer place I had ever dined at was Shake Shack! Coincidentally, I was in the middle of Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, which covers the role of hospitality in business, so it was fun to both talk to the Eleven Madison bartenders about his book, and also see his concepts in action at The Modern. Everyone was pretty wiped out after dinner, so we chose to eschew the post-dinner cocktail round.
Oh, hell yes. I’d do it all again if they’d let me, but I know they need to spread the joy around to many other bartenders. I took a lot from this day of creativity and rabble-rousing. First, as I said earlier, I loved sampling all the various herbs and thinking about creative ways to use them in drinks. Next, just being in the room with such talented and witty people was energizing. It made me really want to try to push my own ingenuity forward. It was also nice to see that nearly every bartender turned out at least one dud. Why wouldn’t that happen? You’re trying crazy new ideas, and not all of them are going to work. Finally, the day was just fun. Junior and Heidi kept a good, positive spirit flowing in the Lab and made it a really great experience.
I’d recommend Liquid Lab for anyone in the spirits industry; it’s that good.
Every year at this time, the question arises, Is it safe to drink eggnog that has aged in your fridge? It’s a simple idea: you make a batch of homemade eggnog, spike it, and leave it in the fridge for weeks or even months. As the eggnog sits in the fridge, its flavor changes. It tastes more rounded and mellow and less boozy.
I’ve never really tried it. We have a jar in the fridge with spiked eggnog, but the nog itself was purchased premade from a vendor at our local farmers market. (Yes, I cheated.) But every year I want to, and every year, I forget about it until mid-December.
The question is, Is it safe? Will the ‘nog get yucky from germs as it sits, or will the booze kill any pathogens?
NPR’s Science Friday tackled the question. For years, it seems, the microbiology lab at New York’s Roosevelt University has made a batch of eggnog in November, before Thanksgiving. They age it for five or six weeks, and then drink it at Christmas. No one’s gotten sick from it. So, being microbiologists, they decided to test it. They laced a batch with salmonella, aged it, and tested the results. Science Friday was on hand to film the results.
From Vanity Fair, 1/35:
“Every Bisquit cognac is a thing of mellow beauty, with a smooth perfection taken to itself through the slow passing of generations during which it has aged in the ancient Bisquit cellars. Each one is the essence of a great vintage of the Charente region, glorified by the alchemy of time, and the subtle skill of makers whose experience stretches back more than a century. They are cognacs to be savored with wonder and respect. They have heard the tramp of forgotten armies–their gold is the glint of a sun that shone on an epoch long vanished. At the first sip you will understand why BISQUIT cognacs hold a place apart in the hearts of those who know rare cognacs best.”
What a load of hooey. But I’ll admit there’s a certain rhythm to it, if you read it aloud in your best Orson Wells voice.
Another brand I’ve never heard of, but then again, I don’t often buy brandies from forgotten epochs, or those that have heard the tramp of Charlemagne’s armies. My brandies were all put up last weekend in Sausalito.
Happy Repeal Day! On this day in 1933, Utah ratified the 21st amendment, fulfilling the three-quarters majority needed to repeal Prohibition, so hoist a glass of your favorite beverage today to celebrate. As for me, I’ll be in New York, preparing for a day of Willy Wonka cocktailing tomorrow, at Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab.
I’m excited about this. A couple of times a month, Junior and his wife, Heidi, open the doors to his Bronx office to a small group of bartenders and spirits writers, allowing them to mix and discuss cocktails, talk about techniques and ideas, and sample unique and unusual ingredients, some of them otherwise unavailable in the United States. This is followed up with dinner and cocktails, and the whole day is paid for by liquor-company sponsors that Junior and Heidi line up.
I hope to have photos and a follow-up post in a few days.