Review – The Curious Bartender
Einstein was spot on when he said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” Whether it be the mind-boggling concept of staring at infinity through the night sky, or simply the wonder of observing the master bartender conjuring magical flavours into a drink, mystery is entrancing. No surprise therefore that the techniques which are used in the what is commonly referred to as ‘molecular mixology’ have caught the attention of the craft bar scene and mainstream media alike. Getting served your first smoking or edible cocktail is a mysterious experience, and often beautiful too.
Sometimes though, our addiction to beauty goes too far, and there are many who abuse or misuse so-called molecular techniques, resulting in drinks that are not so much mysterious as plain weird. And so it is heartening to note that Tristan, author of this book and cover-guy for the molecular movement has produced not a reference material for how to create unusual drinks, but instead what might be considered the definitive guide to the blending of the art and science of bar tending available. In an easy-reading, conversational style he presents “in some parts a manual and in others a documentation of drinking history and the methods of a modern bartender”. This is in fact a gross under-estimation of his work, for this would imply a somewhat passive collection of information. Instead, this is a text that educates on a deeper level; it inspires understanding, not just the achievement of knowledge.
Sections on areas such as “the science of flavour” are well-researched and smartly judged in tone to make for interesting reading at all levels, whilst the detailed explanation on that most important of issues, the physics of ice dispels many a myth and will no doubt be referenced by many. There are of course detailed explanations of techniques such as sous vide infusion, the application of hydrocolloids, liquid nitrogen and dry ice chilling, smokes, foams, air and so on. These are well-written, neatly laid out, and as the the case throughout the book beautifully illustrated with photography by Addie Chinn.
What sets this book apart however is what comes next. In sections covering each of the major spirit categories, Stephenson details recipes for drinks in pairs. The first is a ‘standard’ classic drink, no funny business at all. The second is a related drink inspired by the first, but which makes use of one or more of the earlier described techniques. Both are accompanied by a commentary; a commentary which elevates this book fat above a simple reference material.
At a superficial level ‘molecular’ techniques are often used to enhance the theatre of a drink. No harm in that, indeed the theatre of the cocktail bar is a significant part of the appeal. To stop there however is to miss the bigger picture, for when used most intelligently, such techniques are not simply a garnish, but instead they serve to explain and explore a drink at a deeper level; to tell a story; to become part of the DNA of the drink, not just a showy bolt-on. The ‘Fixed Martini’ for example has a brave go at building on the classic Dry version. By adding wormwood the drink becomes more bitter, a flavour known to stimulate the salivary glands and hence being commonly associated with aperitif drinks. That would be a bit simple on its own however, so the recipe also calls the creation of a sialagogue infusion, these being a family of foodstuff known for promoting saliva production.
Although on the face of it a bunch of work for a cocktail, the Fixed Martini is an example of many in the book which is entirely possible to recreate at home. This makes it a genuinely useful reference, albeit for those who have the desire to do more than open and pour their chosen pre-made beverage. Other recipes, listed as ‘Mixology Impossible’ are (almost) just that. You’ll be needing some special kit to give them a go, but you’re gonna want to. The Hot and Cold Nitro Eggnog Ice Cream for example utilises the properties of methyl-cellulose which acts in the opposite way to gelatine i.e. it stays hard when hot and goes soft when cold. Whizz up some ice cream with it in, then drop scoops into hot water, and hey presto you have an ice-cream that is hot on the outside and frozen on the inside. Genius.
‘The Curious Bartender’ is a delightful account of smart mixology. Cram-packed with intelligent and thoughtful insights, this is far more than an account of contemporary cocktail techniques. This is the sort of book that will inspire a new generation of drinkers to enjoy their cocktails in new ways.”
The Curious Bartender by Tristan Stephenson is available to buy from Amazon
★: Terrible, only drink for a dare.
★★: Meh, not undrinkable but best left alone.
★★★: Reasonable, middle of the road.
★★★★: Tasty stuff, well worth seeking out.
★★★★★: Incredible, booze doesn’t get better than this. Yo