Snail porridge, liquid nitrogen-poached aperitifs and piped aromas from the Black Forest. All culinary twists we have come to expect from the likes of Heston Blumenthal, whose now legendary scientific approach to food is expanding our palates, minds and opinions on fine dining. But this new found passion for blending science and cuisine has managed to escape the confines of the kitchen and several of London’s leading bartenders are donning lab coats and firing up Bunsen burners in search of liquid alchemy. One such bar Purl, and its recently opened sister establishment, The Whistling Shop in London’s uber-fashionable Shoreditch have gone to incredible lengths in the design of their respective cocktail menus; including some truly bizarre, yet inspired ideas, which sound as if they could have been lifted straight from the pages of The New Scientist.
Walking down the stairs into Purl’s cavernous basement interior feels like descending into a Chicago speakeasy, but quickly your eyes adjust to the low level lighting and what surrounds you is the a remarkable recreation of a Dickensian gin place, in all its faded vintage splendour. Thomas Aske (along with his partners Tristian Stephenson and Byran Pieterson) has taken the current trend for vintage classic cocktails and long lost flavours but completely revolutionised their premise, injecting in some new, highly scientific twists, to give their customers an unexpectedly theatrical experience when ordering a drink. “It’s about enhancing the experience and offering drinks that you just wouldn’t see or taste else where” points out Thomas, as one of the bar’s signature drinks hoves into view. The drink, ‘Mr Hyde’s No. 2’ is a novel take on a very simple classic, the Rum ‘n Coke, but expertly deconstructed and rebuilt on a molecular level, using a mix of aged rum, home made cola syrup and chocolate bitters. The concoction is served in a Lapsang Souchong smoke-filled, wax sealed Victorian ‘poison bottle’ and sits cooling in a bath of dry ice. It’s an ominous sight, but uncork the contents and the super-chilled rum and cola, mixed with the wafts of aromatic smoke offer your senses a completely new experience. It’s like drinking, but in 4D. I ask Thomas to explain the method behind the madness.
“I think the most important thing is to maintain our ethos that there won’t be a cocktail on the menu where the ‘theatre’ in the production doesn’t have a purpose of enhancing the drink or adds something to its flavour profile or the texture.” Another classic cocktail to receive the Purl treatment is the Sazerac, which Thomas and his team have gone to great lengths to ‘manipulate’, without straying too far from the boundaries of this all time classic. “The drink itself is a tried and tested formula, which has stood the test of time for hundred’s of years” explains Thomas “and we’ve tried to do something which infuses old and new, we’ve created an Absinthe ‘air’ which is blown through the cocktail, using a fish tank pump!” It essentially gives the drink a light aromatic note, instead of the often overpowering aniseed aroma and flavour, which isn’t to everyone’s tastes.
My taste buds are now in a fully heightened state and rather than risk total sensory overload induced by Purl’s scientific take on the Martini, (which employs a Liquid Nitrogen bath and phials of bespoke bitters), we head over to visit Ryan Chetiyawardana, manager of The Whistling Shop. The design of the bar is also based on the traditional gin place theme, but has taken the scientific influence to new heights with a drinks ‘Laboratory’, a small glass enclosed area on full view in the dining section of the bar, decked out in traditional Victorian-style white tiles and bench tops. It acts as a playground for Ryan to conjure up even more radical and flavoursome cocktails. On the menu at the moment are some of his newest creations – a drink using home extracted Chlorophyll bitters and a ‘radiated cocktail’, the design of which, requires a far greater understanding of alcohol molecular compound chains.
One of the key pieces of equipment the lab owns is a Rotovap still; (or Rotary Evaporator) an impressive contraption employing long, slender glass condensers and pharmacy-esque vacuum chambers and flasks, which Ryan can use to extract intense flavour compounds by re-distilling at very low temperatures.
“Basically, I’ve always wanted to work with delicate flavours, but macerating them in alcohol tended to kill off anything really delicate, especially when you are working with things like floral extracts. This piece of kit allows me to really draw out lighter notes at a much lower level of temperature and preserve some of the subtleties and transfer them into a drink.”
One piece of kit that Ryan is keen to demonstrate is his self-titled ‘Kaboom still’, which looks like a giant pudding steamer and operates at a whopping 130 degrees. Ryan has specifically designed it to extract heavy, earthy and dark flavours, which require a much more labour intensive process. So does Ryan feel that the science behind a flavour leads the taste buds when creating something new, or vice versa? “If you work it all out on paper first, there’s no telling if it will actually taste good at the end of the day. I spent some time recently in the lab at the Hennessy Cognac house, where they categorise flavour using GC (Gas Cromatography) analysis and science is a undoubtedly a great tool to use, but you can’t just work on your curiosities alone – the bottom line is it always has to taste great and, to excuse the pun: the proof as they say is in the pudding!”
One of the bar’s highlights is the selection of whiskies, which Ryan and Thomas have assembled, using the key flavours and mixability as their selling point. “Its been our main objective to travel through the whole gamut of whisky flavours and aromas” explains Ryan – “not only looking at different finishes, styles, regions and countries, but trying to do something innovative, bespoke and at the same time – hopefully educational.”
Alongside the list The Whistling Shop has been working closely with Compass Box to develop their very own House Blend. Impressive stuff for a specific whisky bar, but one would say very special indeed for a cocktail bar.
The sheer display of the science behind the flavour is fully evident at both of these revolutionary bars, what is particularly humbling is the dedication to the discovery of liquid innovation and the fact that both Ryan and Thomas seem genuinely passionate about bringing flavours of the past back to life. This is backed with a distinct eccentricity and an ‘anything is possible’ approach. To put it simply – science never tasted so good...