A VARIETY of liquids simmer in pans on a stove next to a worktop holding several glass storage jars full of preserved cherries.
On a facing counter stands a distilling contraption, while a candy floss machine is stored underneath and everyday kitchen utensils hang from the wall.
Welcome to the experimental laboratory of a new cocktail bar in Edinburgh.
Molecular gastronomy, where scientific equipment, techniques and know-how are used in food preparation, is moving into the drinks industry, with experts using science over the shaker to bring new flavours and textures to the art of cocktail making.
Forget Tom Cruise’s “flair bartending” in the 1980s film Cocktail where he entertained customers by juggling Martini shakers and ice cubes – today’s cocktail creators are more interested in shining behind the scenes.
Mike Aikman, pictured above, joint owner of the Bramble Bar in Queen Street and newly-opened The Last Word Saloon in St Stephen Street, says his job is not about showmanship, but more about the research that goes into creating a drink.
“We really want people to come in and think that’s new whether in appearance, taste or both,” he said. “We want people to sit up and say that looks, smells and tastes great.”
He says the gadgets used in molecular gastronomy give them the ability to push the boundaries.
“We’re not looking at it as a science, we are just looking at new ways to make things interesting.”
And interesting they most certainly are – today’s handcrafted drinks come in any size and shape, from spheres the size of eggs to paper, powdered and jellied cocktails.
Among the tools used by Mike and his business partner Jason Scott is a rotary evaporator, which uses a process of evaporation and condensation to extract flavours and aromas from a blend of alcohol, herbs and fruit.
Load the machine up with rum, fresh mint and salt, and within 20 minutes you have a fresh mint distillate. Described by Jason as a “crystal clear liquid, very potent, very strong and vibrant”, this is mixed with bourbon and sugar to make a Mint Julep.
The candyfloss machine is Jason’s baby, allowing him to make a lime candyfloss from the zest of lime and sugar.
“You put a cherry on the end of a cocktail stick, roll the floss around the stick and cherry, put it in a frozen glass and pour over the mix,” he explains. “The floss melts and you are left with a cherry on a stick. It’s very dramatic.”
As part of their research, Mike and Jason were given free rein to experiment with the gadgets in chef Dominic Jack’s kitchen at Castle Terrace Restaurant, while the bartenders at the Pepper Club in Picardy Place work with the adjoining Steak restaurant chef Jason Wright and colleagues.
The appropriately named Chris Goodrum, head bartender at Pepper, says: “I get ideas from the chefs. I will come up with a concept for a drink, and they push it a little bit further.”
He can also use the chefs’ full battery of modern technical gadgetry to create cocktails. An espuma gun and Co2 cannister are brought into service to make the pale pink raspberry foam topping the bar’s darker pink French Martini, while a smoke gun is used to make the Old Fashioned cocktail.
Apple wood chips get burnt in the gun and are then aimed into a bottle of bourbon combined with maple syrup, angostura and orange bitters. The bottle is capped and the customers decide when to pour the drink over a block of cut ice. The longer the bottle remains capped, the smokier the result.
Another important aspect of the cocktails served in Pepper, Bramble and The Last Word, is that many of the syrups and bitters used are handmade.
The liquids simmering on the stove in The Last Word’s lab include a lime cordial made of sugar, water and citric zest, a vanilla sugar syrup, grenadine – a syrup flavoured with pomegranates – and a buttered whisky. Jason makes up weekly batches for both bars.
“A vast majority of things we can make taste better,” says Mike. “If you take the trouble to create your own syrups and liquors it shows you care.”
While the process of creating modern-day cocktails sounds more like a job for a scientist than a bartender, Chris’s colleague Emma Andrew says it is something anyone can do.
“It does take a lot of effort and a lot of reading, but it’s the kind of thing everybody is capable of,” she says.