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Carbonation Nation

Posted on  | January 31, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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It started in 2008 with Jim Romdall at Vessel in Seattle and has become a bona fide trend, well publicized last summer as it spread to San Francisco, New York and North Carolina. Carbonated cocktails, by the glass and by the bottle, have added a new dimension to drinking.

Bubbles of course are a key component behind some of the most popular basic cocktails—vodka and soda, gin and tonic, rum and cola. But these drinks can go flat quickly, and are often one-dimensional. The soda fountain phenomenon, coupled with the availability of at-home carbonation systems like SodaStream, and the rise of molecular mixology has created the perfect fizz-induced storm.

Why carbonate traditionally-still cocktails like the Negroni in the first place? Jesse Ratliff, bar manager at Table in Asheville, NC, explains: “The first part is the sheer novelty of having a familiar drink served in a unique way. Drinking straight from the bottle brings back memories of childhood as well. You can’t beat nostalgia. The second part is the actual flavor of the cocktail can change as it sits for a few days and the oils, water and spirits come together.”

As bartenders look for more ways to bring the most of out of their ingredients, different techniques like carbonation become important tools. Expect to see more carbonated cocktails—on tap, pre-bottled and made to order.

Bottles Up

At the forefront of the bottled trend (as well as barrel-aging cocktails) was Clyde Common bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Fresh from a 2011 trip to Aviary in Chicago, he was inspired to create what he called “bottled sparkling café cocktails,” a nod to low-alcohol, bitter drinks traditionally served at European cafés. His recipes include the Bottled Sparkling Americano (Campari, Dolin sweet vermouth, water, orange oil) and Bottled Broken Bike (Cynar, white wine, water, lemon oil).

Morganthaler explains why pre-bottled cocktails work from a service standpoint: “They are, essentially, spirit-driven, so there is no need to worry about spoilage. The entire drink is carbonated, providing a more complete experience than simply adding a sparkling finish, as one would do when building these drinks à la minute. And the whole bottle is pre-chilled, eliminating the need for ice and maintaining perfect dilution from beginning to end.”

Garces Trading Company in Philadelphia sells carbonated cocktails by the bottle for consumption on-premise. General Manager Seth Lieberman says, “Our guests love these drinks. They’re unusual and playful, so they appeal to all types of people.” His team blends the cocktails first, bottles them individually, uses an in-house carbonation system to force in the bubbles, and then seals them to maintain the fizz. Bottled bubbly cocktails at Garces Trading Company include an Americano, the Pepino Fresco (Cuervo Gold, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, celery, cucumber, lemon) and the Avenue 1111 (Tanqueray, lime cordial, ginger beer, mint).

San Francisco is also a hotbed of bubbles. At Chez Papa Resto, General Manager Adam Chapman carbonates cocktails three different ways, using soda siphons, carbonated cocktail shakers and yeast. “We bottle cocktails so that we have more time for garnishing and someone can get a drink quicker. I also use this techniqueto keep a drink chilled by having the cocktail in an ice bath and pouring out as needed into the glass,” he says. Carbonated specialties on the menu include the French 75 (carbonated gin, pressed lemon, Blanquette de Limoux Brut sparkling wine) and Remember The Maine (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, burnt absinthe tincture).

How to Carbonate

In 2011, Perlage (makers of a system to preserve opened bottles of sparkling wine) introduced the Perlini Carbonated Cocktail Shaker ($99), a device that functions like a traditional shaker—just add ice and ingredients—but is pressurized with carbon dioxide. A restaurant version ($496) comes with three shakers and a commercial pressurizer that can connect to a stand-alone CO2 tank or can be spliced into an existing dispensing system. This is how carbonated cocktails on tap work at places like Tavernita in Chicago and Sanctuaria St. Louis.

Table’s Ratliff used to use the iSi Twist ’n Sparkle (the product has been recalled for issues with exploding), but he moved on to a larger Cornelius keg (used by the soft drink industry to store and dispense soda). “The latter allows them to be served on tap, which is the only way we are allowed to serve them now in North Carolina.” (Ratliff is still trying to get the NC ABC to allow Table to serve bottled carbonated cocktails.)

Other establishments have taken to building their own systems, like New York’s Booker and Dax. Dave Arnold, co-owner and the head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, built a CO2 rig and developed a method for carbonating. The key is clarifying all the ingredients using wine fining agents and a centrifuge, and keeping them cold. While some bartenders carbonate individual ingredients before mixing, Arnold batches everything pre-carbonation. Booker and Dax has a dedicated section on their cocktail menu called “Bubbles” featuring carbonated combinations like the Hatchback (Campari, tequila, lime, grapefruit) and the Chartruth (Chartreuse, lime).

Building Better Bubbles

The book Fix the Pumps, by bartender turned blogger Darcy S. O’Neil, has become the manual for fizz. Described by the author as “a wealth of information on techniques employed by soda jerks,” he ascertains the creativity of bygone soda fountains to be very relevant to the current cocktail craze.

However, there are a lot of conflicting theories and methods for making carbonated cocktails. Much depends on the type of system being used, as well as the bartender’s personal preference. Trial and error has elicited quite a few blog posts and chat room debates on the subject.

Ratliff‘s advice: “Keeping the mixture cold is a necessity as CO2 is absorbed more readily that way. I would say for large batches, it’s best to perfect your small recipe first and then build incrementally.” At a seminar during last year’s Portland Cocktail Week, Booker and Dax’s Arnold also spoke of refrigeration, citing 22°F as ideal.

Don’t go overboard with carbonating everything behind the bar, says Chez Papa Resto’s Chapman: “Don’t mess with a good thing, and definitely don’t try to pull off carbonating things like red wine or Fernet. Simply use the bubbles to pull out flavors and texture in a drink.” He cites a drink he calls Margarita Champagne where he carbonates the tequila with some agave, Grand Marnier, lime zest and citric powder. “The drink has the same amount of alcohol but less liquid. It’s cleaner on the palate and has all the essences of a margarita.”

Lieberman likes to use strong spirits in carbonated cocktails. “I find that intense flavors, ones that might otherwise be off-putting to some, do really well in these drinks,” he says. “The Americano is a great example: Campari is potent, bitter stuff, but when combined with sweet vermouth and orange oil and given some effervescence, it’s surprisingly refreshing.”

The Case For Going Flat

Not everyone is pumped for carbonation. Boston bartender Todd Maul is known for his scientific approach behind the bar, but won’t make carbonated cocktails. “I call it juggling flaming monkeys,” he says. “The process of doing something that has no real effect in the glass. Does a Negroni become a better drink with carbonation? No.”

Maul also feels carbonating something over 30% alcohol by volume is dangerous: “Your body absorbs carbonation faster. Think about how quickly you become tipsy with Champagne.”

Beyond the rate of absorption, concerns have also been raised about the safety of the various carbonation systems. In July of 2012, the popular iSi Twist ’n Sparkle carbonation system was entirely recalled due to reported cases of the plastic bottles exploding.


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