Carbonation, Sour Sips, and Modern Mixology at Mix@ICC

Carbonation, Sour Sips, and Modern Mixology at Mix@ICC

Day 1

The History of Carbonation in Cocktails
Mixologist Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom – New York, NY
The History of Carbonation in Cocktails
The History of Carbonation in Cocktails

The literature on carbonation in drinks begins, officially, with Impregnating Water with Fixed Air (a Joseph Priestly classic). Fortunately, Don Lee was on hand to expand upon the subject in his Sunday morning mixology workshop. Professionally perched among the wonders of Cocktail Kingdom, Lee typically (and formerly, at the 2010 ICC) expounds upon such topics as sensory analysis and the science of flavor. So, inevitably, his take on carbonating cocktails was heavy on information, with doses of “The Simpsons,” inappropriate Facebook pictures, and a couple damn good cocktails. After covering the first proto-scientific, scientific, and industrial forays into carbonation (Johann Jacob Schweppe founded, and lost, the company that still bears his family name), Lee covered the basics of carbonation from an expert’s perspective. The audience learned how to use an iSi siphon to carbonate cocktails, how CO2 creates carbonic acid when dissolved in water (which is why you can feel as much as taste it), and the only thing that separates seltzer and soda water is an Irish patent. But far more enjoyable was drinking the French 75 and Tom Collins, two bubbly classics that demonstrate different approaches to carbonation. The Collins was low-fi, simply topped off with soda water; for the French 75, carbonated Cava rosé was mixed into the entire cocktail. Lee ended with a few examples of complex carbonated cocktails, wherein a finished cocktail is carbonated in its glorious entirety (as in Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s carbonated, bottled Americano). Audience questions veered toward the practical and well informed (i.e., how to tackle large-format carbonation; the answer: use a rigged keg system). Lee capped it all off with a fun (and perhaps disconcerting) fact: 7-Up was originally made with lithium.

Summoning the Ghost of Jerry Thomas
Mixologist Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club – New York,NY
Author Dave Wondrich of Esquire – New York, NY
Creator Robert Hess of drinkboy.com - New York, NY

Mixologist Dave Wondrich Summoning the Ghost of Jerry Thomas
Mixologist Dave Wondrich Summoning the Ghost of Jerry Thomas
A man in a vest pours liquid fire, dies penniless. A short form—and grossly misleading—obit for Jerry Thomas. Better, and more thorough, respects were paid on Day 1 of ICC by Audrey Saunders, Dave Wondrich, and Robert Hess (Saunders’s husband, also known as DrinkBoy, who stood in for Bobby Heugel, waylaid by a plane mix-up). Saunders and Wondrich are part of the group that, about eight years ago, took a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery to find and drink a cocktail by the grave of “Professor” Thomas, whose grave is unceremoniously marked as “J.P. Thomas” in a neglected corner of the cemetery. Who better to revive him? OK, so modern mixology is lousy with the ghost of Thomas, former sailor, bartender, gold prospector, and hearty, if financially misguided, bon vivant. But it’s only because people like Saunders and Wondrich took care—passionate, stubborn care—to revive the tradition he founded back in 1862 with the publication of How to Mix Drinks. So as the crowd passed a gently worn first edition of the book, and sipped on Saunders’s refreshing, exotically aromatic George Dickel Tennesee Whisky Peach Cobbler—perked up with tincture of long pepper, pimento bitters, and allspice—they heard about how Thomas influenced the revival of modern mixology. From Saunders’s pivotal discovery of Thomas’s spice tinctures and a mixo star-studded event honoring Thomas at the Plaza hotel to a lights-off demo of Thomas’s Blue Blazer cocktail—“maybe one of the only cocktails he actually invented”— it was enough adoration to stir any spirit. So to speak.

Day 2

Sour Sips and Drinking Vinegars
Lynette Marrero of Drinksat6 – New York, New York
Kelley Slagle of Cocktail Kingdom – New York, New York
Sour Sips and  Drinking Vinegars
Sour Sips and Drinking Vinegars

Lynnette Marrero and Kelley Slagle know their vinegars, from their boundless beverage applications (tip: in a busy bar, a shrub or tincture is a great way to add complexity to a simple three-ingredient cocktail) to their far-reaching history (Roman soldiers drank vinegar mixed with wine and shavings from their bronze shields to settle their stomachs and wind down after battle). In their Monday morning mixology demo, these two acetic-acid Athenas led an interactive demo on techniques, recipes, and tips on making shrubs, sour syrups, gastriques, and tinctures using a variety of vinegars and aromatic herbs, vegetables, and berries. Vinegar in a drink acts like “a Zamboni for your tongue,” said Slagle. “It’s refreshing, like the perfect lemonade; you just want to keep drinking.” A roomful of eager participants sipped on gin (at 10 in the morning—brave souls) in an experiment with various HongCho vinegars, tinctures (Fennel with Gravenstein Apple Vinegar was a favorite). Participants also concocted their own shrubs (as Slagle put it, “the darling, the ‘It Girl’ of vinegars”) with a selection of vinegars and fresh raspberries, blueberries, and Concord grapes, and as a bonus got to take their potion-filled jars home with them.

Cocktail Couture: The Convergence of Commerce and Fashion
Jim Meehan of PDT – New York, NY
Tavo Somer of Freeman’s Sporting Club – New York, NY
Damian Higgins, a.k.a. DJ DieselBoy – New York, NY
Cocktail Couture: The  Convergence of Commerce and Fashion
Cocktail Couture: The Convergence of Commerce and Fashion

The second mixo session of Monday began before attendees even knew it, with music— rapid and cascading, pumping into the workshop room. The sound was the creation of Damian Higgins, a.k.a. DJ DieselBoy, who joined Designer Taavo Somer of Freemen’s Sporting Club and Mixologist Jim Meehan of PDT to do something relatively rare in their respective creative professions: discuss the overlap of creativity, inspiration, and tradition. Meehan was originally inspired to explore the idea during Fashion Week. “I began thinking about cocktail fashions,” he said. As attendees listened to the end of Higgins’s intro track (custom written for the event) and watched as a slideshow created by Somer cycled through images like Mick and Bianca Jagger, bare trees reflected in water, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, each speaker discussed his own creative process—and the importance of finding inspiration outside of one’s own profession.

Higgins admitted to wanting to “educate” his audience with his own musical tastes for the first six or seven years of his work, eventually incorporating them into his creative process. Somer, who has a design firm opening, explained how he abandoned the “self-referential” world of architecture for wider horizons, stressing the importance of perspective and time (i.e., permanence vs. momentariness). Meehan underscored the concept of the “historic sense” in creativity from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”, or recognizing both “the pastness of the past” as well as its presence. (He also read a Wallace Stevens poem, Anecdote of the Jar, one of Somer’s lasting inspirations: “I always knew I’d find a way to bring English literature back into cocktails!”) All the while, PDT Head Mixologist Jeff Bell gave a liquid illustration of cycling fashion with three iterations of the Martini: the rich, sweeter Martinez; a dry gin Martini; and the more Spartan vodka-olive incarnation with Absolut Vodka. Higgins’s custom outro music—soft, stoked with mellow hip hop beats—led the group out.

The Best Bartenders I’ve Ever Met
Gaz Regan of gazregan.com – Pine Island, NY
Cocktail Couture: The  Convergence of Commerce and Fashion
The Best Bartenders I’ve Ever Met

Dave Ridings. Mickey Ballard. Murray Stenson. Dale Degroff. Four of the best bartenders Gaz Regan’s ever met. To an audience that mostly hadn’t seen the early New York bar scene (at least not within reasonable range of the drinking age), Regan told the stories of these foundational bartenders, insofar as each influenced him as either a practitioner or consumer of the bartending arts. Ridings was the first, a bartender at Regan’s parents’ Lancashire pub The Prince Rupert and future New York City roommate—“He was, and remains, my biggest mentor.” And that’s because Ridings, who Regan noted looked “like a 70s porn star,” taught him the indomitable lesson of great bartending: “The customer is the most important person in my life.”

Ballard, another fixture of the 1970s New York Upper East Side bar scene, was “loved by everyone” (so much so, Regan related, that Ballard once diverted the flood of admiration from a woman’s dormitory from a 70s-era Robert Redford, whom—incidentally—Ballard’s dog had just stolen a hot dog from). Stenson, a Seattle fixture less known in New York, earned the nickname “The Flash” for his unbelievable speed of service. And Degroff, whom Regan first met at The Rainbow Room, took a foundational stand for tailored hospitality coupled with high quality, fresh craft cocktails (and, Regan noted, handled his slammed opening of The Bemelman’s Bar like “poetry in motion”). Audience members sipped a Negroni while Regan regaled, but the point, he finished, wasn’t cocktails. It was people, and the bartenders who took care of them—four of the best of them.

Taste and Technological Pursuit
Mixologist Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax – New York, NY
Taste and Technological Pursuit
Taste and Technological Pursuit

It was like watching a friendly mad scientist explain the mysteries of the universe. And then drinking those mysteries. Mixologist Dave Arnold, his hands a flurry and speaking a mile a minute, guided his Monday afternoon mixology session (quickly) through a handful of cocktails. First came his onion vodka, made using pressure-cooked purple onions and served with cheddar and beaten biscuit (Arnold’s ode to the undying, eternal NYC watering hole McSorley’s). The vodka was faintly oniony, not enough to chase away a pretty girl, but Arnold’s oak ice cream was much better at capturing the flavor, showing off oak without any tannic bark. And that was the point—how to get the bitterness out of drinks. By far the star of the show (flavor-wise) was Arnold’s clarified Maker’s Mark and apple, which tasted like a clear fall day: the Wickson apple juice was bright and tart, the whiskey had none of the heat of Maker’s, and the carbonation put it over the top, adding a bit of punch to the drink. Peppered throughout the speech (if you could keep up) were warnings (“don’t use cheesecloth to strain … it’s crap!”) and quick tutorials in using centrifuges and hydrocolloids to clarify liquids. For those who appreciate showmanship, there was Arnold’s capper, his mint julep, made using liquid nitrogen-muddled mint, a perfect way to fuse the technology and technique that has made Arnold famous.

Congress Cocktail
Congress Cocktail
Congress Cocktail
The second day of the International Chefs Congress ended with a special liquid flourish: Congress Cocktail. And at 6:30pm, workshops shut down, Main Stage lights lowered, Red Light Cinema began its set, and 12 star mixologists took to the floor of the Chefs Products Fair—bravely serving cocktails to a crowd buzzing with enthusiasm.

First stop was Gaz Regan, upping the intimate ante with a finger-stirred Negroni. PDT’s Jeff Bell echoed the classics sentiment with a dry vodka martini (and a smile). And there was a strong contingent of tart drinks—unconscious liquid ode to the first brisk day of October. Miguel Aranda put out two refreshing cocktails including the Polyester Punch: brandy and orange reduction with HongCho’s drinking vinegar mix concentrate. And Lynnette Marrero and Kelley Slagle followed up their drinking vinegar workshop with an Autumn Sweater that managed to be cozy and crisp at the same time (Barrilito Three Star Rum, Ginger Shrub, Apple Cider, Angostura Bitters, and Perrier) and the Concord Battle Ground (the battle here was between the juniper of Beefeater 24 and a round, chewy concord grape shrub—and everybody won).

In the putting-wine-in-cocktails-category, Dave Wondrich used a mega-shaker (unofficial title) to shake the base of his Santiago Sour, a take on the classic with a float of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon where the egg white (typically, sometimes) goes. And Beckaly Franks, pitch-hitting for Jeffrey Morgenthaler, served the Dickel Punch, combining the Tennessee whisky with sparkling wine, crème de cassis, lemon, and soda. Don Lee (who also pitch hit for Morgenthaler—waylaid by a last minute call out in Portland) was in a different kind of put-stuff-in-cocktails club, using iSi canisters to infuse Beefeater gin with fresh chanterelle mushrooms (at a rate of a quarter pound to 750 milliliters) and mixing that with the nutty salinity of Manzanilla Sherry.

The award for prettiest cocktail of the night goes to Bellocq team Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, who mixed up two versions of Bellocq’s Cognac Cobbler, one with red and the other with white Pineau des Charentes (and Cognac, lemon juice, sugar, Bittermen's Boston Bittahs, strawberry, hibiscus, and mint). And the Weird Science (but not really) award goes to Dave Arnold and Tristan Willey of Booker and Dax, who had a small army of their liquid-nitrogen(ized) Modern Mint Julep ready to go at the stroke of half past six (which is currently in serious contention for being the happiest hour of all).

Day 3

A Study of Texture: Building upon Mixology
Mixologists Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal of Bellocq – New Orleans, LA

A Study of Texture:  Building upon Mixology
A Study of Texture: Building upon Mixology
After a short night (and a long line) of concocting their Bellocq Cobbler at the Congress Cocktail, Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal brought good tidings to the second to last session of Mix@ICC: it’s OK—nay, beneficial—to break the rules. The two mixologists aren’t just cocktailian anarchists; they learned this lesson on the way to developing their cobbler list for Bellocq. “We decided every bottle on the back bar should have a specific recipe,” said Bodenheimer. And they got there not by abiding tradition, but experimentation, and straight-up flouting of time-honored rules. After recounting a tale wherein he and some bartender friends were served a shaken Americano in Italy, and were floored by how incredible, if “inappropriately” mixed, it was, Estopinal commanded his audience of bartenders: “You should shake every cocktail that should be stirred, and stir every cocktail that should be shaken.” More than that, he suggested mixologists explore creative ways to experiment with texture (not quite the same as “mouthfeel”), flavor, tannin, sweetness, umami (weak fish sauce is a viable option), and so on.

The goal isn’t simply to find new avenues to complexity—a boon to bartenders working within the relatively simple framework of a cobbler. The goal is increasing creativity. Among Estopinal’s seven “rules for creativity”: prepare every drink the opposite of its original method (the aforementioned shake/stir switcheroo); beware of “if, thens”—because you’ll work your way back to an original concept; and drink your experiments, leisurely, and in their entirety, because, as Bodenheimer says, “they change,” (warm up, dilute, separate, etc.). Bodenheimer also recommended messing with proportions in classics. The duo practiced what they preached with two version of a fruity cobbler, exactly the same except one was mixed with clarified whey, the other water, resulting in a creamier taste perception. Soon-to-be new dad Estopinal likened it, alas, to breast milk. Estopinal also demoed how to blend olive oil into a cocktail with an immersion blender. “It stays [incorporated] for about five or six minutes” before separating, about the time it takes a patron to drink a small tasting portion, otherwise known as enough time.

Chilean Pisco: From Valley to Bottle to Bar
Cocktail Historian Dave Wondrich of Esquire – New York, NY
Chilean Pisco: From Valley to Bottle to Bar
Chilean Pisco: From Valley to Bottle to Bar

"[Pisco’s origin] has become a matter of patriotism," explained Liquor Historian and Mixologist Dave Wondrich in his Chilean Pisco seminar. But it’s not all battle. Wondrich recounted the history of this white grape brandy while also celebrating the complex flavors and varieties it has to offer. He traced the stuff from its introduction to South America through Spanish colonization in the 1500s, a war of independence that created a pisco rivalry between Peru and Chile, and finally on to the old and new ways that Chile chooses to distill the grapes. With a palate tour of four types of Chilean pisco, including a sample of the oldest form of distillation from the Fundo Los Nichos distillery founded in 1868, Wondrich guided the audience through a myriad of aging processes (wood barrel-aging is only used in Chile. It's illegal in Peru—they only use clay) and tasting notes (from floral honeysuckle and lily to creamier, woodier vanillas). On top of the fascinating facts, Wondrich boozed up the crowd with two cocktails to start and end the presentation: a Pisco Sour made with rare Chilean lemon verbena leaves and an Aji Pepper Sour (replaced with poblano for the demo) for a hint of spice to end the show.

By Emily Bell, Jessica Dukes, Nicholas Rummell, and Rachel Willard

Photos by: Chaz Cruz, Max Flatow, Ken Goodman, John Mazlish, Ben Rosser, Nick Stango, Shannon Sturgis, and Clay Wlliams