Article

The Alchemists

Tony Conigliaro's cocktail lab

What makes Tony Conigliaro’s cocktails tick? Alice Lascelles took a group of inquisitive bartenders, armed with ideas, to his new cocktail lab to find out...


I’m standing in the attic of Tony Conigliaro’s new bar in north London, 69 Colebrooke Row, and I’m surrounded by gadgets. There’s a bain marie for cooking sous vide, a vacuum packing machine, a vacuum still, a cold smoker, a top-of-the-range juicer and slicer, digital scales, an electronic brix meter for measuring sugar levels, a centrifuge, a pH probe and a magnetised rotation unit. But right now we need to open a bottle of water – and we can’t find a bottle opener for love nor money.

‘How can I have all this stuff and not have a bottle opener!’ laughs Conigliaro, rooting through his pockets. He eventually digs out a cigarette lighter, which seems to do the trick, and so with bottles opened and water poured, we can finally begin.

For today, he has an audience of four bartenders keen to learn the secrets of the shiny new lab where he cooks up cocktails which have seen him win everything this year from Time Out Best New Bar to World’s Best Bartender at Tales. As well as Stuart Bale, who joined Conigliaro’s team two months ago, Imbibe has assembled Ryan Chetiyawardana from Bramble in Edinburgh, Jack McGarry from the Merchant Hotel in Belfast and Tom Mountain from Bibis Italianissamo in Leeds. And then there’s me. And Rob the photographer. In fact, it would be standing room only, if only we could stand – the ceiling is barely five and a half feet high.

‘So, what ideas have you brought with you to work on?’ asks Conigliaro, whipping out an exercise book and a green pen.

EGGY AGAVE

First up is Mountain, who says he’s currently struggling with an agave foam he’s created. ‘It’s meant to go on top of a Margarita, but after a couple of minutes it always ends up looking a bit like sick,’ he says despondently. ‘It also smells really eggy’.

Conigliaro makes squiggly notes of the offending recipe and examines it. ‘Egg white creates a web of proteins which makes the foam, but then the lime and alcohol aren’t helping because they break it back down. We need to try lowering the amount of lime you’re using and maybe reduce the egg and add some gelatine to increase the bonds.’

Mountain is promptly despatched to weigh out egg whites on a set of digital scales that are accurate to the nearest 1,000th of a gram.

‘Golden rule number one,’ announces Conigliaro. ‘Measure, weigh, and write everything down. You will have lots of variances and half a gram can make a massive difference. It will save you a lot of pain and anguish in the long run.’

POISONED CHALICE

Next it’s Chetiyawardana’s turn. ‘Well, I’m interested in doing something with neurotoxins – in the same way that with the fugu fish it’s not about removing all the poison but leaving just the
right amount.’

‘Hmmmm,’ says Conigliaro, looking anxious. ‘Also inedible ingredients – vine stalks, leather, cut grass – non-food flavours.’

‘I’ve also got some powdered quinine, because I’d like to make my own tonic water. I want to lose the saccharine flavour of commercial tonics, and make it more bitter. Maybe even make a range of tonics for different gins,’ says Chetiyawardana.

Conigliaro decides to test the

sugar level of the banana I’m

eating using his brix meter…

‘Great, let’s look at making you a quinine hydrosol,’ says Conigliaro, scampering over to the vacuum still. ‘This machine is basically a still with a vacuum pump, which allows you to boil water at really low temperatures. This means you can make, for example, a rose hydrosol – like a water-based essential oil – without destroying the delicate volatiles. You can also use it to
re-distil spirits to add flavour – we made a blackcurrant vodka – that’s a lot fresher.’

I wonder how much does this piece of equipment costs – it looks expensive. Conigliaro won’t say, but later admits the condenser alone is worth £2,000. ‘But it can save you a lot of time and money so it’s an investment,’ he insists. ‘Remember, I started in my kitchen with pots and pans and plastic bags and elastic bands. Anyway, you can pick up a lot of chemicals in Boots and Holland & Barrett and pretty much all the equipment from medical catalogues online.’

As the vacuum chugs into life he smiles fondly: ‘I remember the first time I got this home I just sat there staring at it for four hours – it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Pure alchemy.’

At the other end of the bench, Bale is quietly chopping up oranges. ‘I’m going to vacuum pack them with some oolong tea leaves and then cook them in the bain marie, so that none of the juice is lost,’ he says. ‘I want to try and make a tea-flavoured orange juice for whisky drinks.’

And what about McGarry, who has come clutching a variety of large notebooks? ‘I want to re-create an old cocktail called The Correspondent which uses equal parts Calvados, crème de rose and green Chartreuse, and look at how I can amplify the rose flavour.’

SUGAR HIGH

The first step is to rough it out using Conigliaro’s homemade rose and vodka syrup in place of the defunct crème. ‘So first of all we look at the structure of the drink,’ says Conigliaro, putting the drink to his lips, ‘and the structure is… too fucking sweet!’ he cries, grimacing.

Dryness is clearly what’s needed, and McGarry hits on the idea of using vermouth laced with rose water. Out come the digital scales and a needle-thin pipette, which increases the rose dosage by tiny increments.

With everyone occupied, Conigliaro decides to test the sugar level of the banana I’m eating using his brix meter – it uses a laser refractometer dontcha know. ‘Aha, 16.8!’ he announces. ‘Checking sugar content of your ingredients is very important, as in fruit it can vary a lot. But we also use it to check if brands are putting anything naughty in their spirits like glucose or glycerine.’ Distillers, you have been warned.

By now machines are thudding and sighing on all sides. ‘There she blows!’ cries Conigliaro as water spurts out of a tube and the first drips of quinine hydrosol plop into the collecting bulb. ‘Congratulations Ryan, you are the proud father.’

DRY, DRY AND DRY AGAIN

Over on the hob, Mountain is warming agave, water and gelatine to make several batches of foam with different strengths. Creating solutions at different ends of the scale is key, says Conigliaro, as one can then work systematically inwards to the right recipe.

‘The history of cocktails never interested me that much,’ he says, ‘it’s how and why it works that interests me. Each drink goes through a whole series of rigorous processes. What is it? Why? Who is it for? I think about aroma, taste, texture, look. There’s always a plan.’

By this time, McGarry has lifted his drink up through increasing levels of dryness until it is transformed into something much more agreeable, with the rose character beginning to blossom.

Conigliaro then produces a grapeseed mixture he sometimes adds to martinis –
a few drops turn a glass of water mouth-puckeringly dry. ‘That drying effect makes your mouth produce saliva, which in turn gives you more flavour,’ he explains. ‘The result is that the olive becomes like the prize after the insane journey of dryness – it tastes more like a fruit.’

Chetiyawardana, meanwhile, is pondering a slightly reluctant vacuum still, and it increasingly becomes clear that his quinine hydrosol will take longer than the hour we have left. Conigliaro promises to finish and send the samples to him for tinkering. Bale is also not so pleased with the juiced results of his tea and orange mélange – the tea flavour is a little stewed and the orange not as fresh as he hoped. Conigliaro blames pasteurisation, a result of cooking at too high a temperature, and suggests cooking the orange and tea sous vide, to preserve the freshness. ‘But this is all good, it’s all part of the research process,’ he reassures them.

THE TASTE TEST

Having discarded several prototypes, Mountain is now ready to submit his agave foam for judgement. Conigliaro takes a sip. Looks it up and down. Smacks his lips. Looks it up and down again. ‘You know, I actually quite like it!’ he says. Even better, the foam is still standing 10 minutes later.

‘Even when you think

you’ve got it nailed, you must

keep experimenting’

‘But even when you think you’ve got it nailed, you must keep experimenting,’ Conigliaro tells his apprentices, ‘test, test and test again. Even if you end up with the same drink you started with, you will have learned so much about why it works along the way.’


The Egg-smell Explained

Tom Mountain’s foam originally had two problems: 1. It didn’t stand up and 2. It smelled unpleasantly eggy. The ‘wet dog’ smell is a perennial problem for egg-based drinks, and one that has thus far only been solved by using less egg, or a garnish that masks the smell. But on our visit to 69 Colebrooke Row, Conigliaro revealed that, after two years of trying, he’d finally cracked it.

‘It’s so stupidly simple it’s annoying,’ he says. ‘Eggs are porous, so they can absorb smells. So all you need to do is put them in an egg box impregnated with an hydrosol then seal them in some Tupperware.’

‘You can make them smell of anything you like – you could even do whisky eggs for a whisky sour – the only limiting factor is how many different eggs you can store at one time for different drinks.’

He then showed us a new drink on his autumn list called a Somerset Sour, which features egg white scented with a hydrosol that smells of fresh grass. Combined with Somerset cider brandy, topped with Breton cider and garnished with a mini ‘bobbing apple’, also impregnated with grass essence using the vac machine, this wonderfully misty-eyed cocktail is like a libatory roll in the hay.


Further reading

‘I learned all this by reading books and websites,’ says Conigliaro, who uses the following sites and books on food science and flavour matching:

  • www.foodpairing.be
  • On Food And Cooking by Harold McGee
  • Food Chemistry by HD Belitz, Werner Grosch and Peter Schieberle (‘Although you need a science
    degree to understand some of it!’)

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - November / December 2009

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