The last science class I took was commonly known as "Rocks for Jocks" (The Geology of New England) and I chose it because it had field trips. This impressive preparation left me a little nervous as I stepped into the Pike Place Market office of online cooking school ChefSteps to learn how their laboratory-style techniques could help me (and you) make better cocktails at home.
Luckily, Grant Lee Crilly, Chris Young, and Ryan Matthew Smith—guys whose name you might have heard in conjunction with a little book they helped develop, photograph, and write called Modernist Cuisine—are able to break down their techniques into friendly, easy advice to improve cocktail flavor, including basics on ice, ratios to use if you're improvising a cocktail, and essential tools to have at home.
ChefSteps is their free online cooking school, where you can learn how to apply the kinds of techniques and ingredients seen at, say, WD-50 or Alinea to your own home bartending.
Carbonated Celery Gimlet
Nine on a Wednesday morning seemed as good a time as any to begin drinking, so Crilly started by making the group's version of a Celery Gimlet. It's a drink that might surprise you with its intensely savory celery flavor—nothing like the watery, stringy vegetable your mom smeared with peanut butter back in the day. It goes down like an alcoholic Cel-Ray that drank a Mountain Dew, with a marked salty side, and a vibrant green color (preserved with the addition of some sodium bisulfate.)
Crilly uses a centrifuge to juice the celery, explaining that the juicing technique he uses for the drink came from Wylie Dufresne (of WD-50 and Alder): "Wylie loves celery." If all celery tasted like this gimlet, I'm pretty sure everyone would love celery.
The carbonation process that caps the drink is quick and easy, using an iSi cream whipper. "It makes carbonation more approachable," he says of the tool, which he uses constantly in our quick cocktail session. He tells me that an iSi would be the first tool he'd recommend to someone looking to take his or her basic home bar to the next level. They sell for under $100 and allow you to infuse liquors quickly (using pressure), and to carbonate. Carbonation is forgiving, he adds. "If you screw up, you can just pour it back in and try again."
In fact, one of the most frequently asked questions they get on the site about carbonation is from people who forgot to charge the liquid twice and want to know why their drink isn't fizzy. The first CO2 charge clears out the air that remains in the canister, so it's important not to skip this step, says Crilly.
Another benefit to the iSi? You can make batch cocktails for parties, then just pour them in and carbonate to order. I was sold.
Moving on to the second cocktail, Crilly stressed the importance of controlled dilution whenever you're making drinks. The ChefSteps approach to cocktails includes measuring all ingredients that will dilute a drink—like the ice and any water—by weight to ensure consistency in every rendition.
With a scale to weigh your ingredients every time, cocktail making becomes more predictable, and you can begin to improvise with different ingredients in the same ratios, combining different spirits, liqueurs, citrus, and water or ice. With the right ratios and good ingredients, Crilly says that it's difficult to make a bad drink. His go-to ratio for home mixers: two parts liquor, one part liqueur, half a part citrus, and one to two parts water.
In the Byrrhgroni, the alcohol in the combination is Old Tom Gin, mixed with bitter Campari, Byrrh, a French wine-based aperitif, and Punt e Mes, a rich, bittersweet vermouth. Crilly says that the carbonated final result reminds him of an Italian bitter orange drink called Chinotto. And that's a very good thing.
The flavors of coffee, whiskey, and cigars serve as the basis for an original ChefSteps cocktail they call Churchill's Breakfast. The inspiration for the drink comes from a desire to use the cold-brew coffee they make in the office using the iSi whipper. Instead of a 24 hour brewing process, the iSi method takes just two. (As if he hadn't already sold me on the tool before.) While the coffee finished up brewing, Crilly lit a cinnamon stick and captured it under an inverted glass to line the glass with smoke. The visual effect is impressive.
The cocktail, made with Michter's rye, retained the hint of smoke, with a strong but smooth coffee flavor completely married into the whiskey. Once the ChefSteps folks had come up with the coffee-and-whiskey concept, they needed something to bring the two ingredients together. Angostura bitters was selected not only for its flavor, but also because dissolved solids in the bitters (as well as the coffee) cause the drink to foam up when shaken, giving the cocktail a pleasantly silky texture.