An Interview with Dave Arnold & Nils Noren – Cocktail Mad Scientists
I had the great pleasure this past week of spending an hour with Dave Arnold and Nils Noren, both professors at the French Culinary Institute here in New York. Nils and Dave have each won acclaim in their own right – Nils as executive chef at New York’s Aquavit, as well as a number of restaurants in Europe, and Dave as an award-winning food writer and director of culinary technology at FCI. But together, they are arguably the world’s leading cocktail mad scientists.
It’s relatively safe to say that those of us mixing drinks at home will generally chill those drinks with ice. Not Nils and Dave – they use liquid nitrogen. At home we might make a hot drink on the stove. Nils and Dave use a device they call the “Red Hot Poker”, which heats up to 1,750 degrees Fahrenheit. They have great tools, inquisitive minds, and the courage to experiment and discover new and fascinating ways to make our beloved art more interesting.
As Dave was quick to point out, though, home bartenders aren’t subject to the constraints that professionals must confront. A professional bartender must be able to mix a wide variety of cocktails, using any number of ingredients and techniques. When entertaining at home, we have the ability to remove those constraints, and chose to focus on a specific cocktail or two. That frees us up to spend a bit more time, and maybe bring some of these more exciting techniques into our own homes.
Here are just a few of the topics we discussed:
Nils and Dave have spoken prolifically on the subject of shaking. In fact, Dave presented on the topic in one of my favorite seminars at Tales of the Cocktail last year. But during our interview, Dave noted that while those of us more familiar with mixing our own drinks know how long to shake out of habit, many at home just aren’t sure. Their solution: shaking to completion. Rather than building a cocktail using juices and spirits then adding ice, Nils and Dave made ice out of their juice. As a result, you simply combine your ingredients and shake until the “ice” is completely incorporated into the drink. The cocktail they made to demonstrate used ice cubes made of clarified apple juice combined with Tanqueray gin (2:1 apple juice to gin).
Speaking of clarified juice, these guys are not fans of juices that make their cocktails cloudy. Nils also feels that clarifying ingredients like juices gives a cocktail a better mouthfeel (and is also better if you plan to carbonate your cocktail, which we’ll talk more about soon.) As a result, they incorporate the use of additives such as ascorbic acid (which prevents the juice from oxidizing) and Pectinex, which is an enzyme that breaks down the pectin in apples and allows the juice to clarify. Dave talks more about this on their blog, Cooking Issues.
This is just plain cool. Nils and Dave like to play with liquid nitrogen for a few reasons. Naturally, it’s fun, but as they point out, it also lets you chill a cocktail very quickly, and without any dilution. This can be a huge help if you’re batching large quantities of cocktails, as you might for a party. It also makes for some great cocktail theatre!
Hopefully it goes without saying, but just in case, it’s worth pointing out that Nils and Dave are experts and handling volatile substance like liquid nitrogen, and they’re able to do so in controlled conditions. Liquid nitrogen can be dangerous, so you should avoid trying this at home unless you are properly trained to do so.
Who doesn’t like a little bubbly now and then? We’re used to finding those bubbles in champagne, or the occasional splash of club soda or tonic, but Nils and Dave – as you should know by now – like to get a bit more creative. From the pages of a recent class they taught at FCI on Holiday Cocktails, they prepared a traditional mulled wine called Glögg. Glögg is a red wine, sugar, and spices like cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and so on. And if I had to make a guess, I’d venture to say that Nils added a bit of aquavit as well! But rather than serve this cocktail warm, as is traditional, they decided to add carbonation, and serve the drink cold.
This is actually something you can try at home, with many of the carbonation systems now available to consumers. Dave advises, though, that with mixed drinks, you generally need to use a higher pressure setting than you would for normal soda water. He suggests 40psi (as opposed to the 30psi you’d use for seltzer), as the sugar in mixed drinks has a tendency to absorb more of the carbon dioxide.
Dave Arnold is an expert on hydrocolloids (he teaches a class on the subject at FCJ). These ingredients – such as Xanthan, carrageen, alginate, gellan, and pectin – allow for adding texture and shape to ingredients that aren’t normally friendly towards that sort of manipulation. Case in point: butter. Butter shows up in a few cocktails; most notably, the Hot Buttered Rum. But the challenge is that it tends to separate quickly, so you get a layer of butter on top, and the rest of the cocktail below. Not the ideal experience. The solution: a butter syrup, made with an emulsifier called TIC Pretested Ticaloid 210S (a mix of Gum Arabic and xanthan gum). The butter syrup will mix evenly throughout the cocktail, and never separate. The demo cocktail was the Cold Buttered Rum, which is served at FCI’s restaurant, L’Ecole. (Complete recipe for Cold Buttered Rum)
The Red Hot Poker
Once again, this is just plain cool. The Red Hot Poker is really just that – a long stick that gets very, very hot (1.750 F to be exact). It’s really meant to be a modern day substitute for the now forgotten Loggerhead (which was basically a fireplace poker that was used to heat drinks way back when.)
The advantage of the red hot poker is not only the speed and uniformity with which the drinks are heated, but at that temperature, you basically get instant beverage ignition, resulting is some lovely caramelization of sugars and citrus. It’s a taste you simply can’t get by heating your drink on the stove. Nils and Dave talk more about the Red Hot Poker on their blog.
Needless to say, you don’t want to try this at home (or maybe you want to, but you shouldn’t). Dave did suggest a solution for those at home, though: Lava Rocks. By heating stone over an open flame, then adding it to your beverage, you’ll get as close as possible to the red hot poker effect as you can without actually having a red hot poker. Dave got his set by purchasing a stone bowl – the kind used often in Korean cuisine, and breaking it into pieces!
Have you ever tried a scotch infused with dry roasted peanuts? Or an aquavit infused with Douglas Fir (which absolutely tastes like a Christmas tree)? The key to creating such things is rotary evaporation, which allows for distillation at low temperatures. To be honest, the topic is far to complex to describe here, but fortunately the guys have written an entire primer on the subject.
I can’t thank Nils and Dave enough for taking the time to demonstrate these cutting edge techniques for me. As I mentioned earlier, Nils and Dave teach classes at the French Culinary Institute – if you ever have the opportunity, go! You can find more about their upcoming schedule on their website, or by calling 888-FCI-CHEF. You can also partake of some of their work at the FCI restaurant, L’Ecole.