In Good Spirits – The Art of Dilution: When less is oh, so much
By Joanne Sasvari
There is a secret ingredient in every cocktail.
It’s rarely listed in the recipe books, but without it, your drinks would be flat, harsh and unbalanced. Moreover, it is a finicky ingredient, one that needs to be added with great care and attention, and yet we rarely give it a second thought.
That ingredient, of course, is water.
Water, whether in liquid or frozen form, doesn’t change the taste of a drink, but it affects the way we perceive its aroma and flavour, explains food scientist Harold McGee, the San Francisco-based author of the influential book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Scribner, 2004).
“What ice and water do is deliver that flavour to you in different ways depending on the temperature of the mixture and on the relative proportion of water to the alcohol and the flavour ingredients,” he says. “Chilling also reduces the release of aromatics, so the cooler the drink, the less you’re going to enjoy the aromatics until it warms up.”
McGee will delve deeper into the science of dilution on Tuesday during a much-anticipated seminar he’s leading with legendary bartender Audrey Saunders as part of the Tales of the Cocktail on Tour in Vancouver (Sunday to Wednesday, www.talesofthecocktail.com). It’s just one of six seminars, along with dozens of other events including dinners, parties and tastings, that will comprise the city’s biggest cocktail event of the year.
One of the festival’s most popular events is one that is open to the public: the B.C. Bar Crawl. Twenty-three of the city’s best cocktail bars have created signature drinks for the event, including the brand-new Clough Club on Abbott Street in Gastown.
At Clough Club, head bartender Samuel Lacroix’s cocktail, the QCBC, relies on meticulous dilution. As he stirs whisky, bitters, maraschino and ice in a crystal mixing glass, he explains, “You’re diluting, yes, but you’re chilling at the same time. The important thing is the ice.”
In general, he says, bigger ice cubes are better because they melt slower and chip less so you can control the rate of dilution.
Professional bars invest in expensive machines like the ones by Kold Draft for perfect, crystal-clear cubes; home bartenders can use distilled water and silicone trays like the ones by Levolo for a similar effect.
It’s also important, Lacroix says, not to leave ice cubes open in the freezer for more than a couple of days or they’ll absorb food aromas. Instead, pop them out of the trays and store them in Ziploc bags.
Then there’s the eternal question of when to shake, and when to stir.
McGee explains, “Stirring and shaking are very different, but they have more to do with the speed at which water is added to the drink.”
“Shaking is way rougher,” Lacroix says. “It breaks down the ice faster. It crushes the ice.”
Shaking chills and dilutes a drink faster (and less accurately) than stirring, but it also adds oxygen and tiny shards of ice that can make a cocktail cloudy.
In general, drinks that contain fruit juice or dairy should be shaken; at least 10 seconds for most drinks and a minute or so for drinks that contain egg whites, such as the Ramos Gin Fizz, which historically took 12 minutes and a team of bartenders to shake properly. Stirring, on the other hand, is slow and steady, making it easy to control both dilution and temperature. In general, all-spirits drinks such as martinis and manhattans should be stirred, for at least 20 seconds, James Bond’s dictum notwithstanding.
The key here is that adding water improves our ability to smell the aromatics in the drink. “Taste and smell are two different aspects of the flavour experience,” McGee explains. “For us to smell something, it has to travel through the air.”
Because alcohol and flavour molecules are chemically similar, they tend to “glom onto” each other, he says. However, flavour molecules have the opposite reaction to water and try to escape it, releasing those fragrant aromatics as they go.
Since 80 per cent of what we think we taste is what we smell, this can make all the difference between a so-so drink and a fantastic one.
Who knew science – and a drop of water – could be so delicious?
Clough Club head bartender Samuel Lacroix based this drink on a classic cocktail called the Quebec, named for his home province. Having recently moved to Vancouver, he also decided to add a taste of his new home with a whiff of cedar smoke.
1 1/2 ounces Collingwood Canadian Whisky
3/4 ounce dry vermouth, preferably barrel-aged (see note)
1/4 ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
2 dashes of orange bitters, preferably The Bitter Truth “Smoke” the inside of a cocktail glass by carefully using a blow-torch to char a cedar plank, then invert the glass over the smouldering wood for a few seconds, allowing the smoke to coat the inside of the glass. Chill the glass.
Stir all ingredients together in a mixing glass with ice, at least 20 seconds. Strain into the cocktail glass. Spear a French Guinette cherry on a cedar stick, place it in the glass, then light the end of the stick for a moment and blow out the flame so it exudes a whiff of smoke. Makes 1 serving
Note: Lacroix aged his vermouth for 50 days in a small oak cask. If you don’t have access to a cask, you can try “staving” the vermouth by placing it with a couple of pieces of untreated oak inside a large glass jar and storing it in a cool dark place.