Science of Cocktails

By Jonas Halpren

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Jonas Halpren is publisher of Drink of the Week and Channels Director at Federated Media.

San Francisco's famed science museum, The Exploratorium, recently transformed into a giant cocktail lab for an evening fundraiser. The Science of Cocktails featured interactive exhibits and presentations demonstrating the physics, chemistry and biology of cocktails and drinking.

Presentation topics ranged from "Ice and Thermodynamics in Cocktails" to "Anatomy of a Hangover". I also studied the effects of vodka on gummy bears. Image above right.

Recipes and videos after the jump.

In addition, San Francisco's top mixologists were strategically placed around the museum serving up an amazing array of cocktails. Heaven's Dog, Alembic, 83 Proof, and 15 Romolo were all represented.

Erik Adkins from Heaven's Dog explained that coldness and dilution of a cocktail is heavily dependent on the type of ice, shaking time and vessel used. Basically, it's all in the wrist.

Alembic's Daniel Hyatt opened our minds when thinking about infusions. The time necessary to steep ingredients vary widely. Most of us don't waste good booze, so if it is already interesting, it may not need to be infused.

The crowd was also treated to a bitters contest. We were asked to vote based on best use of bitters in a cocktail. It's a hard job, but someone has to do it.

The hit of the evening was the Old Cuban Cocktail aerated with nitrous oxide into a foam and frozen with liquid nitrogen, which was mixed up by Doug Williams of Liquid Alchemy. Instead of drinking this cocktail, it is best eaten with a spoon. This nitrous infused and frozen Old Cuban Cocktail was light, crispy and boozy.

Old Cuban

1 oz. Cachaca
½ oz. Fresh lime juice
½ oz. Simple syrup
Sparkling wine
Fresh Mint

Muddle mint with lime juice and simple sugar. Add ice and rum. Shake and strain into a Collins glass over ice or straight up in a cocktail glass. Top with sparkling wine.

Watch the video for more on the molecular mixology version of this classic cocktail.


Recipe courtesy Sagatiba Cachaca

The exhibits included a taste test using your different senses. Try tasting with your nose plugged, it makes a huge difference. Pictured at the top is the boozy progression of vodka soaked gummy bears.

They totally lose it as they soak up the vodka.

We attended a demonstration on layering drinks, but my favorite demonstration was Eric Muller's Bar Tricks. Member of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute and author of "While You're Waiting for the Food to Come" showed us how to win some free drinks at the bar. There is good science behind all bar tricks. He used two shot glasses to demonstrate surface tension. Watch the video to see the trick.




This next trick utilizes 2 forks, a cork, toothpick, cocktail glass, lighter and a bit of physics. Master this and free drinks may be coming your way.



Back to the cocktails, my night was complete after trying Jacques Bezuidenhout's Black Opal. This cocktail is an amazing combination of Repasado Tequila, Guinness, port, agave nectar and bitters. May not sound good on paper, but tasty in execution.

The night at the Exploratorium exposed the complexity of mixology and everything that goes on behind that pre-dinner Manhattan. It’s more than just booze, bitters and ice.

Published 12:05 pm Mon, Feb 8, 2010

5 Responses to “Science of Cocktails”

  1. ameta4 says:

    I’d love to hear any recipes/tips that were given in the “Anatomy of a Hangover” presentation…

  2. HarveyBoing says:

    15 Romolo’s Scott Baird’s concoction of [add the drink] was at the top of my list.

    Did you forget to “add the drink”? Or is the actual name of the concoction “[add the drink]”?

    Inquiring minds want to know! :)

  3. phillamb168 says:

    @HarveyBoing I love those slips – they’re so very old-school newspaper to me. I know a lot of people do this, not just old fedora-ed newspapermen smelling of booze and printer ink, but the ol’ “line o’ type or two” and other notes-to-self are so neat.

  4. DrBetty says:

    This was an AWESOME event! Truly unique, creative and exceptionally well run! We had a wonderful time sipping fantastic drinks, and playing with all the Exploratorium activities. The presentations were terrific too. Hope the museum does this every year!

  5. rain_globule says:

    I just tried the trick with the forks and the toothpick and it worked! It took a few minutes to get it to balance but it worked and it is awesome. I’m proud of myself and I probably got a little more excited over this than one should.