They Drunkened Me With Science: Baltimore bars try molecular mixology

We’ve been to a bar or two in Baltimore that gave the vague nod to the concept of molecular mixology—the alcoholic brother of molecular gastronomy, which uses scientific methods to change the texture and flavor of foods. But in all honesty, we haven’t been overly enthusiastic about the potential of burning our lips off with leftover liquid nitrogen used in a fruity cocktail for aesthetic purposes.  And let’s be honest: That’s a bullshit attempt at what is actually a culinary art form, if you really get the concept of mixing at the molecular level.

But the bars employing the true concept of molecular mixology are doing so authentically and embracing the same concepts of the Baltimore dining scene, such as sustainability and farm-to-table cooking, using high-quality ingredients, maintaining a focus on preservation, creating interesting flavor combinations, and often incorporating an element of surprise.

Hearing that Bryan Voltaggio’s newest addition to the city’s dining and drinking scene, Family Meal, utilizes culinary techniques in nearly all of its cocktails inspired us to dig a little deeper to see what’s really happening behind the bars.

The harborside restaurant embraces molecular mixology with its cocktail program’s focus on interesting flavor combinations, achieved through sophisticated kitchen techniques.

Dane Nakamura, bar director for Voltaggio’s restaurants Aggio, Range, and Family Meal, prefers using the terminology “culinary-based program” over the classification of molecular gastronomy or mixology, and is adamant that the program is “not about reinventing the wheel.” He utilizes techniques that were previously used solely by kitchen staff, such as transforming fruits and vegetables via a sous vide method, in which meats and vegetables are sealed in airtight bags and slow-cooked in a water bath, allowing the foods to retain moisture and cook evenly. Another technique he uses is blast-chilling then aerating ingredients with a Paco Jet, a spinning tool that aerates and shaves a frozen product—without any need for thawing—to create a creamy consistency that can be used for sorbets, pâtés, mousse, and concentrates. While the techniques are elevated, the end result is intended to be a humble presentation of high-quality ingredients that allows bartenders to quickly prepare cocktails, freeing up time to spend with drinkers and diners at the bar.  More importantly, all of the work is done behind the scenes. The whole purpose, for those dedicated to the process, is to make an exceptional product without the flair.

“We’re trying to break down the ingredients on a molecular level to get the most flavor out of them,” Nakamura says. “Every chef will talk about layers of flavor. It’s the same behind the bar.”

Nakamura’s bloody mary at Range is one of the simpler examples of kitchen-created mixes, though it’s created through a relatively long process requiring perfect execution. He creates a consommé from a chopped vegetable mix, tomato water from the strained tomatoes used for the restaurant’s pizza sauce, bacon, garlic, onions, peppers, fennel, lemon, and peppers. He then uses an egg white raft for clarification before further straining, so that the mix is nearly clear, as opposed to the more typical bright red mixes used for bloodys.

Nakamura describes it as a bit of a mind-fuck, really. “It looks like iced tea, but it tastes like a bloody mary.” Instead of the tomato-forward flavor of the typical bloody mary, which often relies on added sauces or spices (think Worcestershire or Old Bay) for its kick, this smoother version features tomato flavor balanced with a complex flavor profile from the other vegetables and herbs used to create the consommé. It’s rare that a cocktail is described as having umami, but this bloody epitomizes the fifth taste, with no one particular flavor overpowering another, but instead all working together to make each sip a satisfying one, much like chefs describe “the perfect bite.”

At Family Meal, Nakamura uses the same technique but infuses flavors of Baltimore’s native pit beef into the mix, resulting in a bit thicker and more brightly colored beverage with equally complex flavor.

One of the most simple molecular techniques Nakamura has used at some locations is in his rendition of a mojito. Any bartender will admit that muddling is, at best, a time-consuming task. Instead, Nakamura freezes mint leaves using liquid nitrogen. Upon order, warm rum is simply poured over the super-frozen mint leaves, causing them to instantly release their flavor into the beverage and eliminating the need for muddling. Not only is beverage production time drastically reduced, but the experience of watching the cocktail being prepared feels a bit like a grown-up science experiment as drinkers watch the smoke billow off the quick-thawing mint while the oils release into the rum.

Nakamura has also slow-cooked the mint leaves in an immersion circulator, the tool that is utilized to cook using the aforementioned sous vide method, at 53 degrees Celcius in order to extract the oils of the mint leaf to also eliminate the muddling process.

The liquid nitrogen, though, is where the “simplicity” ends (at least behind the scenes - everything looks simple at the bar, and that’s the point). Some of the most frequently used products for mixing are “jams”—fruit-based substances slow-cooked with complementary ingredients (pepper, salt, herbs) to create what would be considered a traditional jam were pectin included. The absence of pectin allows it to retain its liquid state.

Jams are incorporated in the vast majority of cocktails at Family Meal. The baked apple soda, utilized in the mezcal-based Mexican Warhead #2 cocktail on the Family Meal menu in Baltimore, is made by juicing apples and then heating the juice in a pressure cooker, then carbonizing it in house. By using the sous vide method to cook the apples, all of the moisture of the apples is preserved but the sugars are able to caramelize, neither of which would simultaneously occur in other cooking methods that would allow moisture to escape and an element of flavor to be lost. The same juice can be found in syrup form in the restaurant’s Grey Ghost whiskey-based cocktail.

While Nakamura seems to be employing the most comprehensive molecular mixology we have found in a bar program in Baltimore, there are a few other bars in town using similar methodology with the same mission of preservation and sustainability.

Nick Ramey, bar director at Baltimore’s Birroteca, has been experimenting with juices as well. In Birroteca’s kitchen, Ramey is utilizing agar agar (a vegetarian alternative to gelatin) to clarify juices for its bottled cocktail program, another trend that is gaining momentum nationwide.

“We heat the agar agar with some water, then combine it with fresh fruit juice, let it cool and then run [the mixture] through a cheesecloth. The agar agar binds with all of the solids in the juice and what comes out through the cheesecloth is a clear liquid that tastes like the juice, but without the cloudiness you would get from just juicing the fruit,” Ramey explains.

Creating fruit juices using the method that Ramey describes creates an aesthetically appealing beverage that looks like “a glass of sparkling water,” but retains the expected taste of the original cocktail. Perhaps more importantly, the process lends a much longer shelf life to the juice.

Aaron Joseph, lead bartender at Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East, has also used agar agar to clarify juices and uses immersion circulators to aid the process of creating Wit & Wisdom’s house-crafted infusions.

Joseph  also closely collaborates with the kitchen: “I am constantly seeking advice from chef Zack Mills, whether it’s advice on how to extract flavors of a specific ingredient or how to incorporate molecular techniques. Since our kitchen uses seasonal ingredients we often use similar ingredients for multiple purposes.”

And how about that Paco Jet? Nakamura uses this tool, which he describes as “the most intense shaved ice machine you’ll see in your life,” to create an aerated ice sphere from a blast-chilled pumpkin mixture (slow-cooked juiced pumpkin, chili flakes, bay leaf, and glucose as an emulsifier). The result is a sorbetlike ball that can be used to chill cocktails or straight liquor while adding a subtle smooth creaminess and a touch of heat from the chili.

While the processes for creating bar products with complex culinary techniques may not be widespread, those that are using them are doing so with the same mindset that has become so popular: use seasonally available products in a thoughtful way which, in the long run, makes the process of cocktail creation easier.

And really, any concept that gets a creative cocktail from behind the bar to the coaster more quickly is one we can all get behind, right? 

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