One Part Spirit, a Twist of Science

by Julian Ryall

drinkFollowing molecular gastronomy is molecular mixology — the bizarre practice of the not-quite-cocktail where spirits and science clash in an eye-catching explosion of taste.

With a gentle roar, the glowing blue flame of the slim blowtorch briefly singes the delicate sprig of fresh thyme before it is angled across the rim of the classic martini glass. The drink—crushed cumquats, premium vodka, splash of lemon juice, topped with aromatic thyme—is complete.

The mixologist, as opposed to barman, confidently places it alongside a selection of other beverages on the counter at Ginza’s unique Bar Rage. One is the deep green of tea from Kyoto Prefecture with maple syrup, lemon and vodka; another glass contains a thin slice of grilled tomato and pepper floating on a mouth-watering mix of imported vodka and tomato juice. “Using new ingredients and chemical techniques to make unusual food started to become famous at the El Bulli restaurant in Spain, where they vacuum seal and cook steak with herbs in a water bath at a constant low temperature for 24 hours or more, which gives incredibly intense flavors,” says Tom Huskinson, the Japan brand manager for 42Below vodka. “Techniques like that are the idea behind molecular gastronomy, and that has spread into the creation of cocktails.”lead1

As is often the case when it comes to this country, however, Japan’s expert mixologists have directed their skills differently, explains Huskinson.

“About four years ago, bartenders in London, New York and Australia began mixing cooking techniques into their cocktails to create new flavors, but the big thing in Japanese food and drinks is natural flavors,” he explains. “If a drink has even a hint of a chemical then it won’t work.” For Japanese mixologists, it is all about melding the freshest fruits with the very best spirits and presenting it attractively in a stylish setting.

“To make the perfect drink, you have to combine everything in exactly the right amounts,” says Kunihiro Ichimori, vice president of Bar Rage, as he delicately slices open a passion fruit and uses the blowtorch to give the interior a hardened crust similar to a creme brulee. “You have to use top quality vodka, fruit that is brought in fresh every day, good bar instruments—and the final ingredient is a lot of heart.”

After testing a drop of his latest concoction placed on the top of his hand, between the base of his thumb and forefinger, Ichimori explains his fondness for smooth Grey Goose vodka, which is made in the cognac districts of France and uses the wheat that goes into the best French bread and croissants. Mixologists elsewhere have been a lot more daring in their creations, which are finding a firm following among drinkers looking for a new experience. Some of the world’s top names in cocktail creativity met in Paris three years ago for a two-day “summit meeting” on the future of their trade. Organized by liqueur company Bols, those in attendance were treated to a spectacular demonstration of what is possible when science meets martini, with the oddly named barman Herve This demonstrating the chilling properties of liquid nitrogen and how sodium alginate can be used to create gooey balls of booze known in the trade as pearls.

kudeta-10The mixologists enthusiastically prepared their chemistry sets and started experimenting. The result is flavored foams that float on the top of a drink, solid “drinks”—rather bending the meaning of the term—or variants of pearls that combine a selection of cocktails that burst inside the mouth and release the flavors.

Eben Freeman, of Tailor bar in New York, has perfected tiny gin and tonics that are a sugared lime chip that fizzes with bicarb and citric acid and sits on a mix of jellied gin and quinine. Yet more evidence of his lateral thinking was to take Rice Krispies, repeatedly soak them in vodka, kahlua and condiments before being left to dry and congeal, then served in yet more vodka.

Competition globally among mixologists has led to increasingly odd combinations—and equally surprising results—such as the discovery that by taking cola syrup, smoking it with cherry and alder wood so the liquid takes on a rich earthiness and serving it with a shot of bourbon, the result is reminiscent of the satisfying smokiness of a cigarette—which bars in many parts of the world now ban.

shugoAnd while undoubtedly very clever, Huskinson is not sure if the trend will truly take off in Japan. “In a few years, when people are looking for the next ‘new thing’ then, yes, the scene might become interesting here in Tokyo as well,” he says, holding a martini glass containing a carefully measured combination of European pear juice, grapefruit and vodka topped with a sage leaf. “But I think that taste will still be the deciding factor for Japanese drinkers. “That is not a problem for mixologists here as they still have plenty of materials to work with and they are among the best in the world,” he added. “There’s a lot of creativity behind a lot of bars in Tokyo.”

Featured Cocktails

strawberryStrawberry and high-class fineness sugar martini

  • Grey Goose Vodka 60ml
  • Strawberry 3 or 4
  • High-class finesse sugar 2 tsp
  • maccha_cinamonGreen tea & Cinnamon

    • Grey Goose Vodka 45ml
    • Mineral Water 45ml
    • Green tea 2 tsp
    • Cinnamon syrup 2 tsp
    • Cinnamon stick for decoration

    bar_rage2BAR RAGE Aoyama
    Bulls Bldg. 3F, 7-13-13 Aoyama,
    Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
    Tel: 03 5467 3977
    Open: 6pm ~ until midnight (No Holidays)

    Ginza Boss Bldg. 4F-5F, 8-5-24 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
    Tel: 03 5568 1968
    Open: 6pm ~ 5am (weekdays)
    6pm ~ 2am (Saturdays)
    Closed: Sundays & National Holidays