If at first you don’t succeed, try again with bourbon at the Experimental Cocktail Club
Mar 07, 2019
Do your research
There are several fundamental building blocks for creating a drink. For this barman, beginning at the beginning does not mean starting from scratch: “it’s been a while since I’ve just started randomly throwing stuff together”. Instead, he finds inspiration in a particular flavour combination that he may have discovered in food pairings or even another cocktail that – in his own words – “could be better and more interesting”. This preliminary palate can then serve as your guide to more specific ingredients.
I’m told that the best way to refine your selection process is to become a connoisseur of your own drinks’ cabinet by “constantly tasting the spirits to understand the flavours as best you can”. Through understanding the nuances of every bottle in your arsenal, you’ll find it easier to create complementary pairings, such as vanilla and almond with whiskey.
Avoid disaster by nourishing your knowledge of the craft, as well as of the ingredients themselves. In Matthew’s opinion, one of the best things you can do is go to other bars and restaurants so you can “try other people’s ideas”. Not only could you discover interesting flavour profiles, but entire processes. During his time working at Pigalle-based cocktail bar, Lulu White, Matthew was introduced to fermentation by his then manager, Mark Scott. His interest in this technique led to a three-month endeavour to make a kombucha cocktail, which remains one of his proudest achievements.
Test the variables
Once you’ve chosen your trial ingredients, apply them to a classic recipe. This may seem paradoxical to inventing brand new cocktails, but the idea is to give you a “structuring principal”, a basis to begin fiddling around with not only the contents, but the measurements, until you get the balance of flavours and textures just right. Remember, there’s no need to waste your quality products by mixing entire drinks every time you want to test a combination: Matthew swears by teaspoons as receptacles to try out his ideas in miniature. If you’re really going for the whole crazed scientist vibe, unmarked glass vials will also do the trick.
A truly unique recipe is not a simple case of switching out the ingredients of a long island iced tea. The process should be an evolution. In the case of Ceci N’est Pas Une Tomate, it took Matthew several years to finalise the exact recipe. His interest was piqued by tomato liqueur, having tried it in a number of different cocktails, and he kept it in the back of his mind until he concluded that coffee would be the ideal match. A series of coffee tastings followed until, finally, he was ready to put two and two together.
Analyse the data
The most frustrating scenario, Matthew tells me, is when he hears of a new product that works even better with a cocktail that’s already on the menu. Alternatively, it can lead to the revival of an experiment that had previously been deemed an utter failure. In either case, the revelation isn’t necessarily a complete loss: having alternative recipes in mind for customers who prefer their drinks longer, shorter, sweeter or drier is paramount to being a successful mixologist. “The benefit of being in cocktails is the twists and in-the-moment adaptations” – provided you pay attention to your customer’s needs. Not listening properly to what people want to drink, I’m told, can be one of the biggest mistakes you make behind the bar. There’s not much scope for objectivity when improvising: the thing that matters most is whether the person who ordered it likes it.
Continue to experiment
Everybody is different, but if your goal is to become a true enterpriser, you have to keep learning and keep trying new things. Even with all his experience working at some of the city’s liveliest nightlife hotpots – including being given “a bit of a carte blanche” at the Experimental Cocktail Club – Matthew is still eager to try out even more ambitious approaches to mixology. One that is high up on his list is homogenisation. It’s a means of combining fat globules and liquid molecules, like oil and alcohol, so that they infuse and enhance one another. If that doesn’t conjure images of Bunsen burners and beakers, I don’t know what will.
Ultimately, I can conclude from our conversation, there is a science to the art of cocktail-making. Understanding the characteristics of your spirits, syrups, mixers and even ice cubes, as well as knowing how they will behave when introduced to one another, can be the difference between a triumph and a disaster. Next time you’re disappointed by your drink, remember the old adage: if at first you don’t succeed, try again with bourbon.