While it might seem like cocktail bars are increasingly adopting the dapper, classy aesthetic of yesteryear’s lounges – away from the world of sugary vodka drinks and flair bartending of the noughties – a very different story is going on behind the scenes. Step into the back of any craft cocktail bar today, and the mise en place resembles a chemistry laboratory more than a kitchen. Machines, all dials and buttons and glass apparatus, have replaced pots and pans. Just like the high-tech predilections of modernist cuisine, cocktails too, have entered a whole new world of possibilities. It’s not just spheres and hydrocolloids though – flavour is king in this movement. New technology allows classic techniques to be taken to greater heights. Head bartender Andrew Loudon of hyper-progressive cocktail bar Tippling Club boasts his fair share of gadgets, but the goal at the end of the day is still a delicious liquid, as opposed to textural or visual gimmicks. At the bar, Loudon uses a Sonic Prep – a device that emits ultrasonic waves – to craft a “sonic negroni”, where the drink is hit with sound waves to mimic the effect of weeks-long barrel ageing in a matter of minutes.
Like a hidden mad scientist’s lab, the speakeasy-style Operation Dagger has its rotary evaporator running on full throttle to produce cocktail components like sesame, walnut and even hay distillates – each a colourless liquid with a purer expression of flavour that would never be possible with traditional infusions. Sous bartender Sasha Wijidessa shares: “Now, it seems like most bars have one in their inventory. But I think this is mainly because the drinking culture has been evolving and there are more bars now that are more focused on flavour, which would explain the rise in bars investing in equipment to help facilitate that.”
The latest craft bar to hit the scene is the Ernest Hemingway-inspired The Old Man, where high-tech equipment is used to ensure the consistency of the fast turnover of drinks. “One of the main advantages of using these machines is the accuracy they provide… We can trust the science and let it work in our favour, removing a huge deal of uncertainty stemming from fluctuations in natural product quality,” explains founder and managing partner Andrew Yap. To this end, they clarify grapefruit juice by treating it with enzymes and fining agents, and running it through their enormous centrifuge to separate the sediment. The result is crystal-clear juice, which they combine with sugar and salted gin before carbonating the mixture for a crisp, refreshing cocktail with a fine carbonation.
Tools of the trade
01 Rotary Evaporator
Commonly known as a rotovap, this gadget combines a still and a vacuum pump that lowers the pressure inside the machine, allowing evaporation to occur at much lower temperatures. While originally used in labs to gently extract solvents through distillation, bartenders have found that its low-heat evaporation is ideal for creating distillates with clean, bright flavours that retain much of the character of their constituent ingredients.
02 Sonic Prep
A relatively new invention, the Sonic Prep emits ultrasonic waves that expand and collapse microscopic air bubbles in any liquid, “sonicating” its contents to obtain anything from infusions to extractions – and perhaps most astonishingly, to combine liquids that would normally be unmixable, like water and oil, into a smooth mixture.
Just like an astronaut-training simulation, a centrifuge spins its contents at high speed, exerting tremendous g-forces that separate particles of different densities. Pop some freshly pressed fruit juice into one of these, and the solids separate to reveal a clear juice. Centrifuges are also great for separating solids that might make a cocktail appear cloudy.
04 Sous Vide
While already commonplace in restaurants, sous vide machines are also being used at cocktail bars. By maintaining constant, low temperatures, bars can create consistent infusions without fear of heat discolouration or damaging the flavour of any fruits, vegetables or herbs that they use.
(RELATED: 6 cocktail trends for 2019)