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.
Gird Your Belly!
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.
Willy Wonka Cocktailing
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).
That’s a Lotta Cocktails!
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.
Tipsy & Overwhelmed
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.
It’s Not Just About the Drinks, Though
At one point, Junior passed around plates of edible cocktails, and these were fun and surprising:
- Macchu Pisco sour marshmallow
- Siembra Azul tequila and Combier Liqueur D’Orange gummy
- White chocolate, Castries Peanut Rum Creme, Chairman’s Reserve Rum, and Domaine de Canton truffle
- Leblon cachaça and Vita Coco coconut-water popsicle
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:
- Tuna Lollypop: sushi grade tuna, marinated in whiskey that has been infused with pinepeppercorns, some asian spices, herbs, and grenache vinegar. Served with a cube of watermelon and topped with Koppert Cress Basil Cress.
- Guava Chipotle BBQ short ribs: short ribs braised for 12 hours in herbs and cinnamon, and dressed with a bbq sauce made with guava, chipotle, and Chairmans’s Reserve Rum infused with vanilla and other spices. Served with a cipollini onion roasted with Royal Combier and topped with Koppert Cress Atsina Cress, that has light licorice notes.
- Elotes: traditionally a staple in Mexican households, this dish is made by cooking ears of corn, then smothering it in a homemade Scorpion Mezcal aioli, queso cotija (aged dried cheese), and powdered chipotle pepper.
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.
Was It Worth It?
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.