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GETTING DRUNK DOWN TO A SCIENCE

Mariena Mercer (portrait by Jeferson Apllegate)
Mariena Mercer (portrait by Jeferson Apllegate)
Anthony Alba (portrait by Jeferson Applegate)
Anthony Alba (portrait by Jeferson Applegate)

It’s 4 o’clock on a Thursday, and Mariena Mercer’s turning science into ice cream. She stirs her mix viciously, from liquid to sludge to solid, until shadows cut their way down her arm and every little piece of muscle tissue rushes into action, liquid nitrogen heaving blankets of thick fog up over the cusp of her steel stirring bowl and out across the bar, tying bows of water vapor around the stems of glasses and eventually swallowing everything, the way a fog machine swallows a stage, the way a forest disappears in October.

Mercer, the Cosmopolitan’s property mixologist and Chandelier’s general manager, is, like most bartenders who use gastronomy-influenced cocktail elements, careful not to say “molecular mixology.” Even though that’s why we’re here: Sitting amid the colossal crystal ropes around Chandelier Bar’s center floor and trying to sort out Mercer’s own experience using elements and techniques of molecular gastronomy. The whole premise of which is to implement scientific principles to change the composition of food in order to expand what she does behind the bar. “You have to be extremely familiar in both worlds to be successful,” she says. “I spent years understanding every one of my spirits — I studied each of my vermouths.” She gets right up to the edge of the words but doesn’t say them. At least not to replace the word “cocktail.” Molecular mixology, as a phrase or even a genre, carries a stigma. A molecular mixologist is a punchline to a bartender joke. It evokes visuals of alcohol lit on fire and, essentially, turning a respected vocation into a party trick. “It can be somewhat flash in the pan and that’s not what I want my cocktails to be,” she says. “It can be taken so far out of context to the point of absurdity. I always want it to be about the cocktail.” And with that she hops up and says, “I need to get my tools.”

***

The bar between Mercer and me slowly loses more and more usable surface. She lays down drink after drink, gin vodka whiskey fruity bitter spicy tall short bottled and so on. She drops a handful of raspberries into liquid nitrogen and slides them across the bar in a lowball glass, after taking a couple, chewing them and exhaling a thick cloud of vapor. “It looks like you’re breathing fire like a dragon,” she says, obviously, like she might say, “Ice is cold.”

From her own menu, she starts with the Cherry Smoked Coke: leather-infused Maker’s Mark whiskey, maraschino cherry syrup, Cherrywood smoked ice cubes, chocolate bitters, Mexican Coke. But the cherry syrup is turned into a gummy caviar through a process called spherification (sodium alginate + calcium chloride, at its most basic). “That was the first thing I learned — playing with spheres in different manipulations of types of gelatin,” she says as I dump the balls over the drink, which then float through the mix, looking not unlike a lava lamp. “This is a chemical process that I kind of triumphed over. But I probably clogged my kitchen sink 15 times trying.”

And it goes like this, the drinks piling up — I mean, there’s a goddamn ton — before she decides it’s time for dessert. “Do you like Thai food?”

I do.

***

Fast forward to Mercer, the steel bowl, the stirring, the fog. Fit to be Thai’d is Kai coconut pandan vodka, sweet ginger puree, Thai chili syrup, lemongrass, chili kaffir lime leaves, peanut butter and coconut cream. And now all parts are churning while Mercer adds liquid nitrogen until the mix solidifies into ice cream. She adds her own touch to it: powdered Szechuan flower, which makes the taste buds work harder, making the tongue tingly and numb, and turns the dessert, in the strictest sense, into something improbably cool. At this point we’re beyond the basics. Mercer knows she’s making desserts that can, if you aren’t careful, make texting near impossible, and that finding the right flavors, the right textures, completely changes the battlefield. Citrus throws everything off. Spirits freeze differently than nonspirits. Spirits over 80 proof freeze differently than those under 80. And, in a pinch, almost all of those problems can be solved with liquid nitrogen.

“Spirits throw off the balance of a lot of things so it takes a lot more trial and error,” she says. “I’m playing around now with Listerine strips using different transformative elements and flavors, but there aren’t a ton of blogs on molecular mixology. Instead I read the ones on gastronomy, so that’s a great way to delve into what they’re doing and apply that to spirits.”

***

It’s hard to call Juan Coronado Mercer’s colleague, since Coronado is based in D.C. and his only connection to The Cosmopolitan is his involvement in Jaleo’s cocktail menu, designed to reflect Jose Andres’ Spanish cuisine with alcohol. On the East Coast, Coronado is best known for his opening of Jose Andres’ Barmini in Washington. In my kitchen, he’s best known for the take on a Dark and Stormy he did for Jaleo: ginger and rum frozen into ice cubes, meant to be broken apart and eroded in rum and cola until it creates a slushy. It might be easier to say they’re colleagues in their experiments and follies with freezing alcohol. Or their belief that molecular mixology comes with baggage — that the worst thing to happen to molecular mixology is its name. “My favorite molecular cocktail is H2O,” Coronado says in a thick Dominican accent. “I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘molecular mixology’ because it confuses people. I’d rather call it ‘avant garde cocktailing,’ finding an unconventional way to get to the same finish line. You don’t have to set everything on fire.”

***

Late on a Monday night, several properties down from The Cosmopolitan, Rick Moonen’s Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Bay is mostly empty. To be fair it’s still new. It’s steampunky and a little overdone, showy, with TV screens rotating clips of old movies and Nerf guns painted to look futuristic in a 19th century American West sort of way. All the waitresses and bartenders dress like saloon girls, cleaning up messes that were never made and generally looking busy against the dim red and gold-plated interior. A bartender pours me a drink that tastes like coffee and cigarettes. And I know that, as you read this, I couldn’t have found a better way to make you less interested in what now sounds like a crackpot trend, a way to get exceedingly more out there in styling the drink while progressively ruining everything there is to love about it. But that’s not what Boiler Room’s bar manager and cocktail menu designer Nate Greene has done. “There was a coffee and cigarettes cocktail on the menu that no one could stand except for people like us,” he says, talking about the drinkers who go for hard spirits and skip the sweet stuff. “It used an unbelievably peaty 10-year Scotch. I just wanted to make it badass stylistically.” So he made what’s called an air: tobacco and honey syrup + water + emulsifying powder, stirred and then pumped, with what’s basically an electrical tool used to aerate fish tanks, until foam forms. Then he drops coffee ice cubes in whiskey, which slowly melt, mixing the two flavors with the tobacco and honey. And it becomes approachable, unique and unnervingly well-balanced. But what’s most important here is how good it looks.

This isn’t Greene’s strong suit, designing a cocktail aesthetically. “I had to go learn a lot on my own, molecularly,” he says. He started borrowing from Mariena Mercer, from Tony Conigliaro in London, from every book and dotcom he could find. He learned to use sous vide machines, learned to make foams and gels. He started using rotary evaporators. It was all pushing in one strongly powerfully visual direction. “Chef [Rick Moonen] told me the bar’s gotta be a show,” he says. “I’ve been working on that for him. To me, if it makes sense in the ultimate ending and it tastes good, I’ve done my job.”

***

Throughout conversations with bartenders, from Mercer to Nate Greene’s molecular gastronomy guru chef Justin Klauba, a specialty kitchen shop off West Sunset Road, called Chef Rubber, continued to come up, to the point it warranted a visit. Inside it’s all corrugated white cardboard, fondued in florescent light, a small box of wall displays and rows upon rows of kitchenware. It looks like something between a hardware store and a medical supply shop, with tiled floors and steel shelves and Hall & Oates on the speakers. The rows are tight. As in, stand back to get a better look at the variety of fleur de lis food molds and you’ll probably bump into a towering display of vegetal salts. Tupperware boxes of gold sugar pearls could just as easily be potassium perchlorate or German dark aluminum powder. In the staging area, beyond a wall of cookbooks almost all including the word “art” in the title, chocolate and sugar decorations stand gloriously in clear cases, some as tall as sedans. There’s a small contingent of massive kitchen tools, the kind that turn out hundreds of products every night for occasionally astonishing prices, mixers that could make enough batter for a to-scale cake of Rhode Island.

The shop is actually boring, nowhere near matching the peacocky restaurants it services. It’s more or less a call center, taking messages from all over the country. Local chefs walk in and browse, pick up a gadget, an ingredient, a coloring. Then they go back to their casino properties, their fancy kitchens, and send out an order. From The Rio. From Cosmopolitan. From The Palms. Nothing here is pedestrian or bullshitty. This is the place you go when you want something fancy and absurdly specific, where you go when you’re serious about being playful. I tell one of the workers I’m looking for bar tools. He tells me he has something to show me.

He brings up a small box, and in it, a caviar maker. It’s the really popular thing right now, he says. It’s just a series of plastic tubes, casings and chemicals that look not unlike the large-scale dropper apparatus seen in science labs. When done right, it creates 96 caviar balls at a time. Before this, chefs would have to make their spheres, their caviar, drop by drop. It’s only $69.

The tools are improving and becoming more accessible, and, in that vein, so is the style. “I feel like it’s starting up here,” Mariena says. “But this town does more as far as mass volume, which deters bars from going down that route. It takes a lot of dedication, and when you have large crowds it’s a big deterrent. So not many people have done it yet.”

***

Anthony Alba’s personal lab is maybe the size of a modest bedroom, the dark wood laminate floor crowded with boxes of bottles, tools and massive storage containers. He’s what’s called a beverage consultant, a cocktail mercenary who creates drinks for properties around the valley, under the flag of his company Global Liquidity. It’s here, just off west Desert Inn, that he creates the culinary-steeped drinks for which he’s known, among them edible sidecars and margaritas. According to him, he started playing around with molecular elements in 2005, figuring out the application of foams and caviars. He’ll be the first to tell you there’s nothing wrong with calling molecular mixology Molecular Mixology. That it’s a way to distinguish between making cocktails in their strictly liquid form and what he and his peers want to do: instill progression and move forward. He’s also more than comfortable admitting that molecular mixology is a visual tool, that it’s just as important as the flavor profile. “The reason you have a garnish on the plate is to have something visually stimulating,” he says. “To me liquid nitrogen works just as well as a mint sprig. That, the visual, gets forgotten in the cocktail world.”

He takes tools down from the shelves. Soda siphons to carbonate fruit, a tank of liquid nitrogen to freeze roses. He picks up the soda siphon and fills it with liquid nitrogen. Then, with his hand drawn above his head, he sprays it down on the contents of a vodka cocktail, freezing it, from liquid to sludge to solid, until the bar glows with water vapor. If we’re going to be blunt here, it’s obviously cool. A choreographed one-man show, taking the nerdism of science and turning it into something accessible, something attractive and something worth the trip. “When you go to other cities in New York and San Francisco, it feels like you’re at the same bar every time,” he says. “Vegas does it the best, when it comes to making a distinction.”

Right now, in his lab, Alba is the mad scientist, the Mr. Hyde, and while he’s not busting out the more complicated, theoretical concepts (smokable cocktails, floating garnish achieved through superconductors and magnets), he has them in the bag of tricks. He’s staring down the barrel of the future of his craft, realizing we’ve barely scratched the surface but equally aware that, sooner or later, we have to hit the tipping point. “Every new trend has its initial spark,” he says. “And it gets its momentum, grows into this bubble, bursts, and then settles into what it’s going to be. I don’t know where we’re at in the bubble, but I know it hasn’t burst yet.”

***

By now the nitrogen has evaporated, intermingling with the top shelf of the Chandelier Bar before completely dissipating. The glasses have returned, in full detail, out of the fog and into cognition. And Mariena’s cleaning up, considering her creations, clearly proud and simultaneously working to improve, and still sharply aware of the gravity, or lack thereof, of what she’s doing. “You’ll find a lot of molecular elements in my drinks because that’s what I like,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to serve great cocktails. It’s just a way for me to channel all of my loves: chemistry and the alchemy of flavors. Our bar community is much younger than other cities, and I’m definitely drawn to help nurture it.”