Thursday, September 1, 2011

Molecular Mixology

Plant to Plate’s guest blogger and Atlanta Botanical Garden Conservation Intern, Taylor Arnold, is back with interesting connections between science and cocktails: 

Molecular Mixology: Science Never Tasted So Good 

Our latest installment of the Science Cafe series included a presentation by Dr. Greg Springsteen, professor of chemistry at Furman University. The event took place on Thursday, August 18 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Dr. Springsteen's research covered prebiotic chemistry, and his discussion explored the unique compounds and molecular structure of living systems.

Since the theme of the evening was "Chemically Defining Life," we thought a gin fizz would be the perfect evolutionary cocktail. Naturally this got us thinking about molecular mixology, since most of our favorite adult beverages contain thousands of unique compounds. In other words, we're exploring the science of deliciousness.

So what exactly is molecular mixology? In short, it is a way of creating new drinks by manipulating their ingredients on the molecular level. This process is about changing the texture, viscosity, density, and molecular structure of a liquid. For example, mixing alcohol with liquid nitrogen, alginates, and chlorides can result in specialty drinks like whiskey marshmallows and carbonated mojito spheres.

To help demonstrate molecular mixology to guests at our most recent Science Cafe, our own Paul Blackmore gave a pre-Cafe discussion on the gin fizz.

The gin fizz, we learned, was taking on new forms long before we called it “molecular.” The Ramos Gin Fizz, for example, changes the texture and shape of the liquid into foam. Other cocktails that were (perhaps) ahead of their time include these old favorites:
  • The Old Fashioned - A seasoned bartender will take several minutes to slowly add the sugar and bitters, then repeated rounds of bourbon and ice with a slow stir. To find out why the drink tastes better than using the same ingredients splashed in the glass with a fast stir, they used an electric stirrer and measured the temperature and dilution of the drink. It turns out this doesn’t change anything about the temperature of the drink, but they theorize what is different between the two is that the gentler, slower method releases the volatile flavors from the alcohol, but they land in the liquid of the drink instead of in the air.
  • The Bloody Mary - This drink has all the different taste sensations: sweet (tomato), salt (salt), sour (citrus), bitter (olive brine), umami (tomato, Worcestershire), and the possibly newly-identified taste category of smoke.
  • The Clover Club - The egg whites make a nice foamy texture on the drink, and the air bubbles that foam on the surface trap air and aromas so we can experience them more intently when we sip from the glass.

Some foodies and bartenders still argue that "molecular" is just a way of thinking about drinks, but if you attended our latest Science Cafe, you get to be the judge. 
With the support of the Atlanta Science Tavern, the Science Cafe series is sponsored by the Center for Chemical Evolution. Science Cafe is held every third Thursday from May to October. Admission to the Garden is free for members and $18.95 for non-members and includes access to Cocktails in the Garden. Evolutionary cocktails are $7, wine is $6, and beer is $5. For more information, visit

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