Like the occurrence of most bizarre twists in my life, I found myself, without reason, in a “high-end” strip club in Aberdeen, North Carolina—as a customer, of course!
I was awed by the dancers’ perfect bodies and athletic pole skills, but what absolutely amazed me was that the club employed a disheveled, slightly sweaty, but amazingly talented magician to go from table to table and provide his mystical skills for the patrons. “Why,” I thought, “would they need anything but these silicon-enhanced, naked nymphs to entertain their customers?”
So I asked to speak to the general manager. He was gracious enough to sit down and give me some clarity, which was as simple as this, “You can never have too much entertainment.”
That short and sweet explanation was seared into my brain forever (as well as some other things I saw that night, but those things won’t help you have a more successful bar business).
Years later, I learned about the restaurant Alinea and its creator Chef Grant Achatz, a leader in molecular gastronomy. I was as fascinated by his magical manipulations of food as I was mystified by the strip club magician’s seamless sleight of hand.
Wait—before you get outraged at me for comparing the chef of one of the world’s top ten, Michelin 3-star restaurants to a sweaty strip club vaudevillian, let me explain!
Chef Achatz is, without a doubt, one of the best chefs in the world and can probably make the most amazing hamburger you’ve ever tasted. But he chooses to create a molecular gastronomy experience for his diners—complete with a course of an edible balloon filled with essence-rich air. Why? Because you can never have too much entertainment. Customers might pop in for a great hamburger if they happen to be in the town where
it’s served, but they will book a trip and pay upwards of $300 per person to experience a night at Alinea.
You don’t have to be a scientist or the chef of a 3-star Michelin restaurant to apply this theory to your bar! There are very easy tricks you can implement into your bar program to blow your customers’ minds and keep them coming back for more!
I’m going to walk you through some super fun molecular mixology techniques that are more “strip-club-magician-sleight-of-hand” than “Michelin-star-chef,” but nonetheless they’re exciting and accessible.
Let’s begin with the evolution cocktail, which starts out tasting one way, but as you drink it, changes into a totally different cocktail. This change in taste is achieved with flavored ice—it’s literally that easy.
Add lemonade ice cubes, and a spiked ice tea slowly changes into a John Daly. Imagine cucumber juice cubes in a gin and tonic—yum! Feeling extra creative? Try filling a Collins glass with one cube of each: horseradish, tomato juice, celery juice, and a spicy lemon juice cube. Add vodka and watch your bloody mary unfold with every sip! Add three different, brightly colored fruit juice cubes to a glass of Prosecco, and you have an evolving mimosa that will keep them coming back for your brunch time after time!
My favorite evolution cocktail is the dirty martini. The customer gets to really experience their chilled vodka of choice for a few pure sips, and as the olive juice cubes melt, they get a delicious dirty martini. I love using a high-end olive juice, like Dirty Sue, and freezing one of their blue cheese stuffed olives right in the cube!
Another mixology sleight of hand can be achieved by simply adding an all-natural flower extract. Using the virtually flavorless Butterfly Pea Flower in a cocktail will give it a beautiful indigo color, but as soon as you stir in citrus, it instantly changes to a bright pink right before your customers’ eyes!
My favorite is from The Wild Hibiscus Flower Company because it’s already slightly sweetened and comes conveniently in liquid form with a dropper. You can also buy the flowers dry (from Amazon) and brew your own as simple syrup or tea to create that unforgettable magic cocktail moment.
Sometimes it’s not what’s in the glass that is mind blowing, it’s the actual glass! Slipstream has created a new, intriguing, and much more enjoyable way to experience absinthe. The three-chambered glass looks like a cross between something you’d find in a head shop and something you’d see in a mad scientist’s laboratory. I can picture the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland sipping from one of these!
You start by pouring the absinthe in the bottom. I use the award-winning Vieux Carré from Philadelphia Distilling because aside from having the most beautiful, eye-catching bottle, it’s very balanced and not overly sweet. In the next chamber, you put a sugar cube, and the top chamber gets filled with ice. As you pour the water in, the sugar cube appears to start smoking as the absinthe swirls. It’s one of those, “I’ll have what she’s having” drinks. The glass can also be used to build other cocktails like a French 75 or a classic champagne cocktail.
“The patented glass design was created to showcase the complex and alluring aromatic profiles of absinthe, and let you be amazed at the visual effects of the chemical reaction that occurs when preparing absinthe in this one-of-a-kind glass that lets you drink like you never have before,” said Owner and Creator Dimitri Uhlik.
It’s not a cheap glass, but Uhlik tells me, “Here’s the most amazing thing: It’s unbreakable glass! It’s made from durable shock/thermal resistant borosilicate (Pyrex) glass so you won’t be stuck replacing them every month like a martini glass.”
Plus, it will help you sell more absinthe! “Bars that are carrying the Slipstream Absinthe glass are selling more absinthe given the theatrical experience of the glass,” says Uhlik. “Our glass was designed to make serving absinthe very simple and efficient. Any bartender that has been serving absinthe using the traditional drip fountain method will tell you that it takes too long to prepare in a fast-paced environment. Our simple three-step process for bartenders is to pour the absinthe to our dose line on the glass, add a sugar cube and ice, then quickly pour water into the glass and watch the magic of the louche (chemical reaction that occurs visually). Then hand the glass to the customer.”
For my final trick, I won’t be pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half, but I will turn your favorite cocktail into a spoon full of caviar spheres! That’s right, using Chef Rubber ‘s Spherification Kit, I can turn that cosmopolitan into bubbles that explode with boozy flavor in your mouth! Chef Rubber has made this seemingly difficult process super easy by putting together an all-in-one kit of the ingredients and tools you’ll need.
I decided to make small spheres of some of my favorite liqueurs. However, you can also make a larger bite-sized bubble of any cocktail, serve it to your customer on a Chinese soup spoon, and watch their eyes pop as their cocktail does! Think of this as an amuse-bouche—something to get their juices flowing while you hook them into your establishment. Voila! You just created a customer for life.
This concludes my lesson in molecular mixology for today, but I hope it inspires you to think of even more simple sleight-of-hand tricks to elevate your cocktail program.
By Rachael Robbins, who owns the cocktail consulting company Chickologist. She’s tended bar in NYC, Miami, LA, & NJ for 20 years. She opened a speakeasy in Jersey City and began creating innovative cocktails. She is the in-house Mixologist for VDKA 6100. Reach her at chickologist.com or @chickologist.
All photos: Chris Capaci at @capacityimages or capacityimages.com.