Under the influence
Molecular? Tiki? Gastronomic? The British bar scene is awash with trends and techniques at the moment. Clinton Cawood investigates the latest innovations and finds out which ones are here to stay...
Modern life is awash with technological developments. Tablets, e-book readers, biosensors... There’s now a 3D printer that prints food – chocolate, most notably. It’s a determined march into the future.
There’s development and innovation within cocktails too, but the march of the bar world takes a more circuitous, meandering path – not unlike that of your typical supermarket trolley – drawing influences from the future and past as it goes. The equivalent would be building a microscopic steam engine onto a microchip. Not so great for engineering, but not a bad approach, as it turns out, if you’re creating drinks.
‘Borrowing elements is a means of creating something that might be close to the original, but is still interesting,’ says Worship Street Whistling Shop’s Ryan Chetiyawardana. ‘I don’t think this means it’s not new, as it’s still interpreted through a modern lens. History is relevant, but its influence is cyclical. I think there’ll be “futuristic” development too.’
Smokestack’s Scott Tyrer puts it well: ‘The obscure and the arcane have been the lifeblood of mixology since the great molecular revolt of 2010. We have become the resurrectionists of old forgotten
recipes and products – just look at the range of bitters currently available,’
he says. ‘I think from here on in we’re going to be progressing from the beginning of cocktail history. History will always repeat itself.’
This resurrection is nevertheless inspired and facilitated by a technological factor. As 69 Colebrooke Row’s Marcis Dzelzainis says: ‘The biggest change in the last few years has been in our access to information. The internet has been a real game changer.’ Andrew Mullins, of Fling International Bar Services, agrees: ‘The wealth of knowledge that bartenders now have at their disposal has really changed the face of the profession.’
These myriad influences may be complex, but the overall result is a positive one. Alex Kratena, at Artesian at The Langham, paints a picture: ‘Nowadays, you can enjoy a cocktail inspired by a recipe from a book published a week ago in a Moscow speakeasy, made with Japanese equipment and served in a Bohemian crystal glass.’
The new trends in cocktails and bars are, however, influenced by more than improved communication and access to greater information. Tyrer refers to the influence of research into flavour pairing on the trade, describing it as, ‘the only true form of molecular’. He explains: ‘My objection to things being called “molecular mixology” is that it’s leading people to think that you’re using science. But actually you’re not. You’re using a technique that someone else has developed through their understanding of food science.’
APPLIANCE OF SCIENCE
And with that, the gloves are off, as Tyrer throws in the unfailingly controversial M-word. There are few bartenders worth their salt who discuss ‘molecular mixology’ with a straight face. ‘It’s a nonsense title for people who like self-aggrandisement,’ says Dzelzainis. ‘Egg white, first used to make “foams” in the 1800s, is probably one of the most important molecular developments.’
‘Molecular means very little to me,’ agrees Chetiyawardana. ‘I think it’s an inappropriate term that defines very little. Many adopted these techniques because it was on-trend, and as a consquence, there were plenty of sloppy results.’
Mullins is well-placed to comment – Fling is behind ingredient and equipment supply site molecularmixology.co.uk – and even he is sceptical about the term. ‘We’ve always preferred the term “impact drinks”. The word “molecular” makes the techniques sound unapproachable and pretentious.’ It’s a difficult term to avoid, though. ‘In terms of finding information on the subject, it’s ubiquitously known within the industry, and therefore difficult to shake,’ Mullins says, pun presumably unintended.
'Greater prep: If ther's any growing trend in bartending, it's this'
So if it’s all just a question of definition, what is there to be done? ‘I see people using dehydrators and vacuum packs, and calling that molecular,’ says Kratena. ‘In my eyes, that’s equipment borrowed from the kitchen, rather than the laboratory.’ And perhaps this is the key. In recent years, the distance between the bar and kitchen has narrowed even more than it has between the bar and the lab.
‘There’s a definite increase in the number of high-profile restaurants merging forces with quality cocktail bars, and the result is less division between eating and drinking,’ says Met Bar’s Lewis
Wilkinson. ‘This gives bartenders access to all the potential creativity that a professional kitchen
has to offer,’ he adds.
GROW YOUR OWN
Chetiyawardana may have a prominent lab within Whistling Shop, but still advocates ‘a move towards the style that kitchens run to’. He explains: ‘It’s not that I think that homemade is inherently better. It’s that taking control of our work on a more fundamental level is a key to the modern development of bars. We run each day like extended kitchen shifts – it’s hard work, and many bartenders aren’t used to it, but for those who come on board, the personal growth is enormous.’
The result is an industry in which it’s increasingly common for ingredients to
be made in-house. Mullins confirms: ‘We regularly train bartenders in creating home-made bitters, liqueurs, syrups, preserves, and even sprays of flavoured water. Continued development in distillation techniques and home-made products may also see independent bars producing their own boutique spirits, bitters and infusions.’
'The distance between the bar and kitchen has narrowed even more than it has between the bar and the lab'
Greater prep: if there’s any growing trend in bartending, it’s this. ‘Some of the bars I’ve worked in have had huge prep lists for ingredients,’ says Tyrer. ‘At Bibis Italianissimo, we had a whole Monday shift dedicated to the preparation of our jams, cordials and garnishes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Willy Wonka factory scene.’
Everything within reason, though, as Johan Ekelund at Happiness Forgets reminds us: ‘It’s hard to have a bar without some homemade ingredients, and we make a few, but they are very simple. How is this going to be the next big drink if no one except the staff in your bar know how to make it? At Death + Company they must have had 20 different syrups. Nice bar and all that, but I wouldn’t want to do their set up.’
The Mayans might have seen 2012 as the end of the world. But hey, what did they know? Our bar gurus are predicting great events of their own for the latter half of this year
Dust off your white suit... ‘I see a return of disco classics,’ says Artesian’s Alex Kratena, ‘but made properly, from scratch, with fresh ingredients. I’m launching an entire page of our menu called “Twisted Disco”.’ Kratena’s not the only one seeing mirror balls in his tea leaves...
Smokestack’s Scott Tyrer adds: ‘Generally I think the fun is going to come back, as bartenders rebel against the often stuffy nature of present mixology. Blue curaçao has been creeping back in, so why not the Blue Lagoon or June Bug?’
It’s not only wall-to-wall Saturday Night Fever, though. Fling International Bar Services’ Andrew Mullins makes the logical connection between food and drink trends. ‘We’re already seeing an increase in demand for seasonal or “slow” cocktail concepts. These ideas are already in restaurants in the UK and I think they will quickly transfer to the bar scene.’
Johan Ekelund at Happiness Forgets mentions a similar trend that may have its influence: ‘I’m hoping that the bar industry is going to look
Mullins is confident about a new sparkling cocktail solution called the Perlini – a pressurised cocktail shaker that infuses a drink with CO2. ‘I think it will have an impact on UK bars and be around for some time.’
In short: fizzy, healthy and seasonal disco drinks. The future’s bright. Unless you’re a Mayan.
Join Alex Kratena at Imbibe Live to find out more about new wave Disco Drinks. 5pm on Tuesday 3 July in the Shake It! seminar zone. Flares optional.
At 69 Colebrooke Row, with its pioneering work in creating ingredients, Dzelzainis knows about the pitfalls. ‘We have a small menu which allows us to do a few things very well, but some
go overboard. It’s a double-edged sword – people who come into the bar don’t see the work that goes on behind the scenes: the GP calculations, health and safety checks, the precision with which we measure everything to ensure that the quality is consistent...’
In moderation, there’s a definite benefit to putting in some extra prep time. ‘I think it’s important to experiment and infuse your own products,’ says Charlene Holt of Apotheca. ‘It’s no more difficult than cutting an extra tub of limes. Sometimes it isn’t practical in terms of volume, but for products you use now and again, it’s worth going the extra mile to put your own stamp on something.’
At Met Bar, Wilkinson’s approach is a pragmatic one. Take one of the drinks on his list, the Green Park Frost, as an example: it includes basil, celery bitters, lavender flowers, maraschino liqueur, sugar, Martini Bianco and Plymouth gin. ‘Individually combined, it would be difficult to achieve the proper balance at speed,’ he says. His solution has been to pre-make two ingredients: a basil and celery syrup, and a lavender maraschino. ‘This way we achieve a correctly balanced cocktail at twice the speed, with very little initial prep.’
Any survey of recent bartending trends and techniques wouldn’t be complete without shifting our focus east for a moment. As Tyrer puts it: ‘Four or five years ago I would have thought, “That’s it, there’s nothing new left to do in bartending,” and then the Japanese came along...’
Jeffrey Masson, of equipment supplier Cocktail Kingdom, backs this up. ‘I never thought I would see three-piece cocktail shakers behind bars but now many of the top bartenders in London love using
them,’ he says. ‘It’s been important to give bartenders the opportunity to use new tools which
were generally unavailable outside of Japan until a couple years ago – products such as ice picks, trident spoons and Yarai mixing glasses.’
No matter where the influences originate, in space or time, certain elements remain universal, and some, like barside manner, may now be getting the attention they deserve. It’s telling that almost every bartender asked about trends for this article made a point of mentioning customer-oriented service.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
‘We’re going to have to get tighter on the financial aspects of running a bar, and put more focus on the guest,’ says Dzelzainis. Tyrer echoes this: ‘As long as we keep focused on the guest, the next few years could be really exciting.’
‘A lot of bartenders focus on technique and weird serves, and forget that the most important part is being a good host,’ says Ekelund. ‘Smile, and focus on your job.’
Movements are often a response to, or rebellion against, something that’s gone before. Maybe a new wave of customer-centric service is emerging to counteract a trade temporarily obsessed with chemicals and laboratories.
Idealistic? Maybe. But so was airborne travel, once upon a time.
ESSENTIAL KIT, BOTH HIGH- AND LOW-TECH
‘The Mexican elbow must take a bow as the piece of equipment that came from nowhere to being
an intrinsic and essential part of every bartenders kit. Additional pieces of kit that I now always take
‘Ice ball moulds. They’re simple to use and maintain, and offer a subtle touch that makes the guests appreciate their drink that little bit extra without being extravagantly over the
‘In terms of ingredients, I’ve been using tapioca pearls recently. As far as equipment is
concerned – a dehydrator, mini grill, hand blender, smoke gun and a frozen cocktail machine.’
‘Access to tools has become more straightforward. When I was at uni, getting near a rotary evaporator wasn’t easy... I’m also using bacteria and fungi in a way I wasn’t in past
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – July/August 2012