When you’re sitting at the bar with your favorite cocktail in hand, you’re probably not thinking about the science that went into that drink. How the aroma of the spirits are delivered to your nose. Or if the thumping music is having a negative effect on how it tastes. For Tony Conigliaro, that’s all he thinks about.
I met Tony last month at the Mixology by Perrier event at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York City, and got a chance to talk to him about “Cocktail Science” and the experiments he’s been doing in London at the Drink Factory and his nearby bar, 69 Colbrooke Row.
Here’s what he told me about the full sensory experience of drinks, the effects of carbonation, his famous Play-Doh drink and his infamous perfume cocktail, and the impact of music in a bar.
I was looking at the way flavors were going together and I was simply trying to create better ingredients for drinks. I hit the wall of what constitutes better ingredients, and so I started looking at the science. I have a collective of people that are food scientists, that help out with finding those ingredients.
I found that smell was running in tandem with taste. I always had an interest in perfume, so I decided I wanted a food-grade perfume to go into a drink I called The Rose.
(Note: The Rose became infamous, because the scent Tony developed for it is remarkably close to a very famous perfume, which did not take the imitation as a form of flattery.)
I chose a number of different ingredients to give it more depth, and when I got what I wanted, I found that if you add sugar to anything with bubbles, it increases the aroma a lot. So I put the “perfume” mixture on a sugar cube and added it to champagne. First you get whiff of rose with the slight taste of rose. Farther down it evolves into a deeper more sensual rose, and then finally into this woody note.
I likened it to walking through a rose garden with a glass of champagne. The more you walk into the garden, the deeper the aromas get. It becomes a fuller experience.
The idea was to try and get people to describe a color through aroma. It was a basic test to get reactions and see how they think about flavor and color together.
I looked at things I thought people would think of as green. I got shiso, a really green flavor. I put pine in, along with mint and patchouli. Just tiny bits to get a deeper color green. (Tony mixes these into vodka, since it’s a flavorless spirit, to use as a “vessel” for the scents.)
This illustrated peoples relations with scent, and that they can be very personal. Some people did say it reminded them of “green” but others said it reminded them of Play-Doh, and therefore answered pink or blue when asked for a color. (Note: I tasted this drink at the event, and I have to say it smelled and tasted exactly like Play-Doh. And I swore it was light blue.)
We did this study with professional bartenders. We blacked out glasses and got them to taste something they taste all day long. but we played different music with the drinks.
One was a humming chorus from Madame Butterfly. Then we’d play this horrible techno track. We asked them to give us smell and taste notes on each drink.
And we found dramatic differences. During Madame Butterfly they picked up the flavor nuances in the drink. With techno playing, they were picking up the alcoholic notes and harder, spicier notes.
So we found that the music in the bar will affect how people appreciate the drinks. Some will relax you, some will irritate you. We are also trying to prove the sound of the actual glasses used in a bar can make the drink taste better.
This affects everyday service, and if bartenders are aware, they can look out for it and make the experience better.
I’m doing a lot of work with Perrier on the effects of carbonation. It’s amazing for carrying aroma and flavor, so we are looking at what happens when you add bubbles to things. We want to now how does it affect flavor, aroma.
And the minerality of Perrier has been giving us interesting results. We’re seeing if the “terrior” of minerals affect cocktails, like a stony mineral affect you’d get in some wines. And I’ve seen that clay gives an amazing full mouthfeel, so using a high-mineral mixer may have an effect on the enjoyment of a drink.
Tony’s new book, “Drinks” will be available in the US in September. It will have a lot of the recipes he talks about here, and he says some are easy to replicate at home, and some will be very technical and push you a bit to get the results. But all will give you a sense of what’s now possible with cocktails.
For more, follow me @thebachelorguy.
Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Tony Conigliaro