Science might not be the first thing you think of when you step – or stumble – into Toad’s. In reality, though, the modern dance club is actually teeming with applications of scientific principles: the laws of physics can be observed in the gravitational forces acting on particular body parts on the gyrating dance floor, the psychological mechanism of in-group-out-group bias is evident in the division of the crown into tight cliques of freshmen girls and athletic teams, the principles of natural selection are at play in the adamantly declined offers of free drinks. Now, believe it or not, there is even some applicable chemistry, and not the dance-floor make-out kind of chemistry. In recent years, molecular gastronomy has been expanded to produce the sister field of molecular mixology, which applies science to the creation of decadent avant-garde drinks. Thanks to the work of Hervé, the father of molecular gastronomy and founder of molecular mixology, a relationship between organic chemistry and alcohol consumption has been established with revolutionary results.
With a fusion of ingredients like sodium hexametaphosphate, alginates, and chlorates culminating in a harmony of flavors, colors, and textures, these cocktails perhaps better resemble the concoctions of a mad scientist or an artist’s chef-d’oeuvre than the primitive rum-and-coke to which many of us are accustomed. Inspired by the new developments in molecular gastronomy, molecular mixology employs theoretical chemical principles to help bring about a “cocktail renaissance.” Not only have molecular mixologists expanded the possible syntheses to include flavors like marshmallow, caramel espresso, and peanut butter and jelly, but they have also stretched the very definition of a “drink” with the introduction of gin and tonic jelly, alcoholic foam, and vodka-infused ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. In addition to chemistry, this field also uses the concepts of physics to determine the best shape of a glass, mixing technique, and even the ideal shape and size of ice cubes for each type of cocktail.
Of the many scientific disciplines involved in this new trend, polymer chemistry is particularly indispensable to a molecular mixologist. Thanks to the cross-linking abilities of glucose polymers, “caviar” is no longer confined to five-star restaurants or adventurous sushi. Fruit juice, sodium alginate, and calcium chloride can fuse to form tiny bubbles of flavor christened with the name of the exotic delicacy for its similar appearance when floating in a cocktail. Sodium alginate, a cornerstone of both molecular mixology and gastronomy as an emulsifier and thickener, is a glucose-based polysaccharide ionically bonded to a sodium salt that is derived from seaweed. When reacted with soluble calcium chloride, divalent calcium ions replace sodium ions of the alginate in a single displacement reaction. The calcium cations then attract the negatively charged alginate groups of other polymers, forming cross-links between these molecules. As a result, the reaction forms a thick, edible gel which encases flavored juice, pleasantly bobbing in drinks and popping to release flavor in the drinker’s mouth to give a cocktail an extra kick. (Chemists actually utilize this same technique to emulsify dangerous waste and contaminants in lab.)
Another polymer that molecular mixologists use is albumin, the hydrated protein found in egg whites. These polymers are mixed into drinks and then whisked, causing the proteins to become denatured and the bonds to become broken. The result is the formation of new covalent cross-links with other proteins, which manifests itself in the form of foam or a pleasant fizz when whisked to varying degrees.
Aspen Powers, a seasoned bartender at Toad’s Place of New Haven, has “seen it all,” but even he is excited about these scientific innovations in his field. He already practices one staple of molecular mixology: knowing the varying densities of flavors, he “layers” shots to produce specific flavors and sensations. Ethanol, the alcohol from which vodka and many common alcoholic beverages are derived, has a low density and therefore rests on top of added flavors that tend to have a higher density. Such considerations form savory combinations as the flavors at the bottom of the glass leave a stronger impression, and thus the layering of flavors determines the order and extent to which they are tasted. In fact, Powers uses this strategic technique to design shots like his signature “chocolate-covered cherry.”
Though Powers is intrigued by the new ideas presented by molecular mixology, he admits that it would take a bit of a push for him to allow the theoretical laws of chemistry to override his own instincts and methods of trial and error perfected over the years. However, when asked whether these exotic concoctions may appear at Toad’s in the near future, he is optimistic, noting that “people go to bars to be entertained: they want something special, unique, and exciting,” which these drinks undeniably are.