n. pl. things that interest Stewart P. Slocum

The Enlightenment of Mixology | Dushan Zaric & Aisha Sharpe | Pioneers in Mixology | Part Four

In Drinks, Innovation on May 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Opening my eyes refreshed from a “listening meditation” last night, I sit at the Tibet House (15th St. 5/6) where Dr. Miles Neale, a contemplative psychotherapist, tells about a jarring experience with one of the confrontational types that wander the streets of East Village and how his response to the confrontation created his reality, not the confrontation itself.  A quick thought flashes through my mind on the unusual path that led me here, starting, of all places, with a passion for the culture, history and progression of Mixology.

The grand opening of Pernod Ricard’s “Pioneers in Mixology,” whose sessions I’ve described over the past few posts, was helmed by Dushan Zaric and Aisha Sharpe with a workshop entitled, “Mindful Bartending: The Mastery of Service.” It will also be presented as part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic on May 17 at the Astor Center.

In this fascinating session, Dushan & Aisha mixed Buddhist principles with the realities of bartending life – late hours, near constant contact with alcohol and boundaryless customer expectations in the world of today where everyone with a Facebook, Yelp or other social media account has an audience and increasingly consider themselves a critic – sharing positive secrets only with close friends but warning EVERYONE if something goes awry.

May sound like a daunting lifestyle, but we know it isn’t necessarily, and Dushan freely admits that “this is the coolest job in the world,” made even cooler if you master balance, live mindfully.

He presents the description of a bartender as part Mixologist (master of cocktail history and the expansive and ever-evolving recipe catalog), part Sage (master of ceremonies responsible for operations, atmosphere and attitude of the bar/lounge/resto) and undeniably part Rock Star (larger than life personalities that can & do range a broad spectrum just like real stars.  Think about the disparity from Bjork, to D’Angelo, to Flaming Lips, to Ting Tings, to Radiohead to John Mayer).

Dushan Zaric and Aisha Sharpe at BarSmarts Pioneers in Mixology

Rock Star Presenters Dushan Zaric & Aisha Sharpe (with Simon!)

Dushan himself is ear-ringed, vested, skinny-jeaned & wallet-chained, and Aisha is sporting a blond fem-rock faux-hawkish look with her black teeshirt; neither would look out of place walking off the Bowery Ballroom stage.  As I glance around the room at the BarSmarts Mixologists in the 9 a.m. morning light, it is a kick to see these larger-than-life personalities and how they are expressed even before noon – quite a few hipster fedoras & derby hats in the room, hoodies galore, one Nehru jacket, a few more vests and the previously mentioned leopard-print dyed hair – definitely a room of Rock Star personalities.

Bar Smarts Pioneers in Mixology

Mixology Rock Stars

As the session unfolds, Dushan & Aisha bring to life the “firm your mind, not your butt” brand of yoga.  Focusing the room on the importance of a bartender’s mood, which sets the tone for the night (influencing scores of other people), and how their reaction to customer and staff interaction either creates happiness or friction, but every moment the choice is that of the bartender to make.  Emphasizing that the ripple effect is as alive behind the bar as anyplace else in life, and it is a bartender’s choice to create happiness.

Dushan & Aisha reveal many aspects of mindfulness through the bartender-lifestyle lens, relating how applying mindfulness techniques creates more happiness in the world and how this translates to happier bartenders, customers, tips, sales, repeat business, repeat business, repeat business … essentially creating a community and virtuous cycle.

In closing, Dushan points to our happiness as our responsibility.  “We are the lucky 1% who have education, who have conditioned air, sewage.  The conveniences we take for granted are the luxuries unattainable to even royalty in the not too distant past.  Your internal state of mind determines your outer world.  Pour yourself into your cocktails.”

Wow.  This was an unexpected and stimulating start to a day full of exploring the frontiers of Mixology – not a technique or recipe has been shared in the first two hours and yet the room of mixologists is transfixed.

Coincidentally, next up on my Kindle reading list was “Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are” by Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald.  Even more coincidentally & quite humorously, it is the #4 book in Neuroscience just behind AA’s 12-steps.

“Pictures of the Mind,” shares the latest learning from fMRI brain imagery, which itself is a frontier technology now available to neuroscientists, and the findings are astounding.

Our “selves” are not set in stone in childhood as is popularly believed.  The brain is highly changeable, plastic.  It is possible to exercise and build our happiness-making circuits.  There is even an inkling, a glimmer, of where the “mind” may reside in the brain – a story-making area in the left hemisphere that sews together senses, thoughts and emotions to create our unique realities.

All of this is cool leading-edge discovery, but perhaps most fascinating are the brain-imagery studies with Buddhist Monks.  The corollary is that happiness, compassion & empathy are closely related in the brain & also trainable.

Practicing mindfulness, exactly what Dushan and Aisha have adapted to a successful bartending lifestyle, gives benefits beyond each meditation session and extends throughout day-to-day lives.  The more miles on your “mindfulness meditation” odometer, the better you deal with situations that would spin a typical untrained mind into a negative feedback loop.

Wow.  Again, I’m not expecting this, especially from a book on advances in neuroscience.  Seems “Pioneers” in many fields are applying mindfulness and reaping many a benefit.  Curiosity more than piqued, I had to dig deeper so upon recommendation of the “Pictures of the Mind” author, I’m working my way through, “The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness,” that gives practical method to Mindfulness training and is authored by a Tibetan Monk who participated in the fMRI studies.

While I have just dipped my toe into the water of this arena, intellectually it all jives.  The “social proof,” hearing first-hand from two respected Mixology thought-leaders, of how Mindfulness has influenced their life and those with whom they work and care about was a compelling incentive.

So yes, Tuesday nights, I’ll be back at the Tibet House, and to bring this full circle back to Mixology, I did notice that there is a meetup group in Manhattan, DharmaDrink, at the Rubin Museum Lounge (17th St. 6/7) that brings together mindfulness practitioners with cocktails every Friday.

In addition to the two books mentioned and Dushan’s session during the upcoming Manhattan Cocktail Classic, some online resources provided in “Pictures of the Mind” are:

Mind and Life Institute

Mindfulness-Based cognitive Therapy

Also, talks and meditations online at:

Dharma Seed

Plum Village Practice Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Shambhala International

Feel free to share your own thoughts on Mindfulness, Mixology or the interplay between the two.


Cutting Edge Mixology Techniques | Tony Conigliaro | Pioneers in Mixology | Part Three

In Chefs, Drinks, Innovation, Restaurant on April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

The relaxed Zen attitude suddenly shifted to a much more zestful spirit for the Mixologists in attendance. This session promised to make accessible the leading-edge techniques that Tony, who has a reputation for turning the cocktailery world on its head, is exploring.

With his jovial British air, he introduced the methods he’d be covering: Aromas,
Rota Evaporation, Why Ingredients Go Together and The Vintage Manhattan, whatever that might be!

1/ Aromas
Parallel to the culinary world, aroma makes up 80% of the flavor in beverages. In everyday bar use, you experience this aroma emphasis via zest garnish, vermouth misting and such flairs. Tony takes a twofold approach to pushing the envelope of aroma: 1/ referencing the world of alchemists and perfumery as inspiration, and 2/ applying science to crafting aromas in cocktails – specifically using herbs, which can become liquid ingredients when their essences are absorbed in alcohols, waters and oils.

As an extreme example, Tony held up a simple egg, the froth of which is used in many classic cocktails like the Peruvian Pisco Sour. The shell is semi-permeable. This got Tony to thinking about how to infuse these froths with flavor before even cracking and whipping the egg. After experimentation, he landed on a process of MacGyver-ian straightforwardness. Place a few drops of herb essence on the cardboard container of your eggs, store in airtight Tupperware refrigerated over night. Suddenly, he presented Calvados (an apple Brandy from Northern France), sour mix, added lemon and an egg-froth with a distinct hay flavor. He had infused the egg froth with an essence of cut grass. Even knowing what was coming, the taste turned out to be an incredibly surprising and pleasant experience.

From the perfumery world, he explained that in cocktails there are also Top, Middle and Base notes, which is why both perfumes and cocktail aromas can “unfold.” These note demarcations come from molecule size – citrus lighter, wood notes heavier. This thinking inspired an infamous cocktail Tony created, the Chanel No. 5.

While the name of the cocktail is no longer in existence (thanks to a call from the attorneys at a certain renowned fashion house), you can still make a wonderful Rose Champagne cocktail, a rose cocktail by another name.

Add a few drops of Rose essence (in essential oil, which can be broken down with a strong neutral spirit, like Everclear) to a sugar cube and drop into a glass of champagne. The champagne is filled with carbon dioxide, the sugar (which has been infused with Rose essence) activates the carbon dioxide, pushing the Rose flavor through the cocktail. It’s a drink that literally blooms Rose flavor as one imbibes.

Where oils do not mix very well with water, there are Hydrosols, water-based essences, made by distilling the essential oil through a still and suspending in water to be used in aroma exploration.  So see, not complex at all.

2/ Rota Evaporation
Honestly, it looks like something from Doctor Frankenstein’s lab and is a contraption that could set you back $6000 – $7000, but it has been used to amazing effect in the culinary world at places like Alinea in Chicago and both El Celler de Can Roca and el Bulli in Spain. With Tony, the beverage world is not far behind.

Rota Vap Rotary Evaporator Tony Conigliaro

RotaVap | Under (reduced) Pressure

What a Rota Evaporator does is distill liquid under a vacuum, which lowers the boiling point, allowing ingredients to evaporate at lower temperatures. This maintains the integrity of the initial liquid – no denigration. Got it? Well, what does all that mean?

Things like horseradish vodka can be whipped up for spectacular Bloody Marys.

With a Rota Evaporator, the distillation process can make straight distillations, hydrosols (remember those?), alcohols, salts, separations and reductions. It’s quite a toy for the intellectual mixologist, even pushing the boundaries into non-food distillates.

Gewürztraminer white wine is most renowned for its flinty notes. With a Rota Evaporator, one could literally distill the essence of this wine varietal into myriad cocktails, using just flint from the region. Why stop there? Next up, a syrup of wine barrel to add Chardonnay woody notes to cocktails.

3/ Why Ingredients Go Together

Beefeater’s Master Distiller knows when to cut the heads and tails (a decision that separates the quality spirit from the beginning & end of the distillation process, which contain contaminants and unappealing flavors) just by the smell of the distillery … a licorice scent in the evening.

Most likely for you and me, we would need help mastering pairing flavors at the level Tony is discussing. These guys use gas chromatography coupled mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to measure chemicals and taste. They then think about overlapping chemicals in flavors, bridging flavors, tastes that we are hardwired to enjoy (sweet) or not (bitter). The takeaway is that there is an entire science behind this for those who want to dig deeper:

Bernard Lahousse | Food Pairing website with Flavor Trees/Wheels
Hervé This | Molecular Gastronomist blog, which is in French so fire up Google translate

Tony encouraged all to use instinct enhanced by science.  Check out this Flavor Wheel for pairing Whisky.

4/ The Vintage Manhattan

What are they? Simply put, aged cocktails. Unfortunately due to many bad, bad factors (oxidation, blending, wood, “stretching”), it’s not as simple as applying the wine vintage process to cocktails. Tony has been experimenting with perfecting a bottled version of The Manhattan for years, and he opens a bottle every few months for patrons at his lounge, 69 Colebrooke Row. He’s gotten all scientific on it using the GC-MS (remember?) to measure the complexity of The Manhattan vintages over time. The idea is to have craft cocktails that can last a week or a week and a half once opened. Even more, it’s to highlight the complexity that goes into the art of the cocktail and create a beautiful product.

Is it necessary? I’m not sure. Most likely the only places that would ever serve vintage cocktails, would have a well-trained bartender who could mix one helluva Manhattan him-or-herself.

For a second I thought, this is the epitome of Tony. If he were a cocktail, he’d be a Vintage Manhattan. Of course the next thing out of his mouth was that while pursuit of the aged cocktail process had been a passion of his dating back to at least 2004, he’s already on to cooking Manhattans Sous Vide and has recently been playing with Sous Vide Negronis.

Yes, all of the Mixologists in the room got a handful of cutting-edge techniques to play with as soon as we find our local (or Amazon-shipped) hydrosols and essential oils, but what Tony really challenged us about was to keep taking from pure science and turning it into applied science, noting that flavor and consistency are as much part of the cocktail world, as the culinary.

And with that, I’m closing up my notebook, now much filled with pure science, & heading off for a Negroni, one of the miracles of applied science.

Pioneers in Mixology

A view from my seat at Pioneers in Mixology

The Craft of Bartending Using Local Ingredients | Nick Strangeway | Pioneers in Mixology | Part Two

In Drinks, Innovation, Restaurant on March 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm

In the spirit of why the heck not, let’s begin with the end – Nick’s ace presentation on “Field-to-Glass” cocktails ended the day with an appropriate call to action, “guerrilla gardening,” but more on that later. “Field to Glass” seems the simplest of concepts at first brush: just use local and fresh ingredients, but then take a look at your local seasonal crop chart (click here for link to find yours).

Nick Strangeway's Fruit and Herbs for the Bar

A Strangeway Bar Set Up

Early April in New York, as I write this, offers a bounty of: potatoes, turnips, carrots and onions. Not exactly the most appetizing toolkit with which to craft a single cocktail, much less an entire menu of them. Undoubtedly your chart will have a few fallow periods as well, most likely October through May.

Still after a few minutes of explanation Nick has us bought & sold that local is the future, and it’s easily accomplished — with just a little planning. First, feature drinks that highlight the fruits in season. Okay, we’re off to an easy start.

Rather than run from the offseason challenge and buy produce from outside the United States (from where 39% of U.S.-consumed produce hails,) Nick presents strategies to extend local produce to overcome the lean times:

Milk Punches – Settle down class. It is an unusual solution, but Nick has rediscovered this Colonial method of preserving fruits with alcohol that dates back to at least the age of Charles Dickens, who kept more than 12 dozen jugs of the stuff in his basement. Punch has a lush history in Europe, early America and the voyage between the two, as a blessed libation for our pioneering Argonauts. Largely due to Nick’s influence, punches are reappearing ever more on the international cocktail scene. This is all fine & dandy for high-end lounges but what about the fruit in your local green market? Punches could be called the perfect drink for home entertaining as they can be made days & weeks in advance, as well as being hand-crafted, pour-&-serve, and at this point, still a novelty. Click the link for history & recipes.

Infusions – We’ve all seen the large fruit & vodka, or tequila, or spirit-of-the-moment, filled jars with spigots lining back bars, acting as much as design elements as ingredients. Nick’s advice: if you’re truly planning to use local ingredients in your drinks year round, embrace infusions to craft complex cocktails, not just as shooters or decor.

Freeze – What!?! How can one talk about freezing and “Field to Glass” in the same breath? High pectin fruits & berries hold up extremely well. We’re not talking strawberries here, but cherries, black currants and such. These can be used in sherbets to flavor drinks. One of my favorite cocktails hails from Local in Dallas. The name of the resto is purely coincidental to the subject of this post. It features sparkling Italian Rotari with a frozen ball of grapefruit-rosemary sorbet. As the sorbet melts with the carbonation in the glass, the bubbles initially carry the citrus notes and as the minutes pass the herbs come into play. It’s fantastic, an evolution in a glass.

Jams – Curiously, over the past two months I’d stumbled into the phenomenon of selecting a favorite spirit base & then an unusually flavored jam at Flatiron Lounge, one of Manhattan’s earliest mixology dens and a noted haven for media types. I guess I’m saying the leading edge is experimenting with this so expect to see this trend grow. Also Nick introduced the room to Shrubs, which are a fruit textured liqueur, extending the life & flavor of your local produce.

Cordials & liquors – Nettles, what the heck is he on about now? As an example of how far one could take this, Nick showed us a recipe of a nettle (an herbaceous stinging plant more common in Eurasia than America) cordial, which I’m assuming he’d prepared as a novelty. Might not be right for guests in your home or your clientele but perhaps there is something locally appropriate. I’ve heard of Dandelion beer.

All & all some good, not too difficult to achieve strategies for extending the harvesting season while embracing Field to Glass, what Nick was truly discussing is the trend of “Rurbanization,” his term, which he described as city dwellers either getting in touch with their roots or connecting with idyllic simplicity in their hectic world, essentially incorporating rural practices (real or conceptualized) into their urban lives.

In addition to the green/farmers’ market phenomenon, Nick spoke of the exponential growth of urban & community gardens, where city folk can get a plot of dirt for themselves as well as three more interesting concepts:

– Guerrilla Gardening: Finding public dirt & planting something you cannot readily find in your neighborhood, for instance Chocolate mint, Borage, Lemon Verbena or even Wormwood. Naturally his examples can all be used in the craft of cocktailery. A quick google search can connect you with a group, but a conversation with your nursery on what to plant is the way to go for the most independent of you.

– Foraging: A little like the inverse of Guerrilla Gardening, this is finding herbs & plants within your local neighborhood. As an example Nick served Gin with a liqueur made of Pine needles foraged from Central Park.  (Click link for Wild Man Steve Brill who conducts tours in Manhattan.)

– Yard Sharing: This is a concept I love and a true example of how the modern age embraces “Rurbanization.” Via the Internet, people with excess land (or just little interest in tending theirs) whether it be small garden or yard are connecting with those who want to garden & sharing costs & bounty. After a few hours searching for a local yard, I couldn’t find any in Flatiron in Manhattan so if you know of someone, please ping me. Still, an amazing concept.

Nick Strangeway at Pernod Ricard Pioneers in Mixlology

A blurry Nick tastes Nettle cordial

All & all, Nick disguised presenting simple solutions to serving fresh produce year round in the bar while truly having a larger call to action for bars to further embrace and support the communities in which they operate. Not a bad nightcap thought for a full day.

New York Community Gardening Resources:

New York Community Garden Coalition

Oasis NYC – Community Garden Map

More Gardens – Manhattan Community Garden List

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