I've sat at the bar more than once watching some self-important 'mixologist' faffing around with dry ice and spirals of lemon peel and thought to myself: That man is polishing a turd.
But up until a few weeks ago I had never encountered a bartender who actually makes drinks that smell like shit. And plastic, and mold, and vomit. Not intentionally, anyway.
But that is what Tony Conigliaro, the British bartender behind London's trailblazing 69 Colebrooke Row, where high-concept cocktails come smelling of rose gardens, vintage lipstick, and incense, is now doing at his Drink Factory lab in east London. Inspired by perfumery, he's been venturing deep into the armpit of the aroma world in search of ingredients that might give cocktails a new kind of kink.
'Normally you encounter these kind of aroma compounds in such small quantities that you never actually smell them per se—you smell them as part of a composition,' says Tony. 'Part of what we're doing now is letting notes like these breath a bit more, letting them have a bit more of a personality, but still within the bounds of…' he pauses, searching for the right word, 'decency.'
Still, there are moments when smelling some of these things in company feels decidedly rude.
'It's arse! Fecal!,' cries Tony as he takes a satisfied sniff of a paper blotter that's just been given to him by an assistant. 'But it's also rotting flowers,' he adds, passing it to me. 'And a bit porky too.'
The smell Tony is talking about is indole. If you've ever walked into a room and wondered who took a dump, only to find that the smell is actually coming from a vase of white lilies rotting quietly in a corner, then you'll know what indole smells like. Present in shit, pork fat, rotting flesh, and coal tar, as well as heavy-scented white flowers including orange blossom and tuberose, it's an aroma compound that's often used in perfumery to give scents a sexy, animalic feel.
When Tony puts it in a cocktail, it infuses a Martini-style recipe of vodka, liquorice, and bubblegum-sweet jasmine with just the right amount of filth. It doesn't taste like shit. It tastes really good, actually. But in a way, that's just a little bit wrong.
'It's that knife edge of pleasure/pain, revulsion, and seduction which is one of the beauties of the old perfumes,' explains Conigliaro. 'If you look at Jicky [an iconic perfume from the 1880s], there is an element of revulsion, it's 'oh my god' but it's also 'I want it'. That's a very sexual thing, and something we want to investigate.'
Rather less sexual are Tony's experiments with eggy beer. "We've been doing a lot of experiments with off notes in beer and wine," he says, handing me a blotter which scorches my nostrils when it's still several inches from my face. 'That one's styrene," he grins, as my eyes start streaming. "In small quantities it can be quite sweet but like this it's really unpleasant and plastic-y."
You don't say. Yet even this chemical weapon has been harnessed in a cocktail called Plastic Pop, a tribute to Andy Warhol that flattens layers of jasmine, pink pepper, and earthy clay under a trashy, styrene sheen.
Another fault that Tony's turned into a virtue is the paper-y aroma that some beers get when they oxidise. "We used it to create the Paper & Ink," he says, droppering a dot of midnight blue liquid into a coupe full of crystal-clear booze. It may be bad news for beer, but this fault makes a shit-hot cocktail, wrapping cool, mineral ink notes in a cosy, pulpy sweetness that goes down like liquid Basildon Bond.
By now I'm feeling a little emotional, so the next two aromas (methylbutyrate, an ester in beer that tastes like pineapple, parmesan, and vomit, and some kind of sulphuric something which buzzes like a static carpet) pass in a blur.
Everything comes back into focus, however, when we get to the aroma that Tony's really hot for right now: geosmin. Some people describe this as 'muddy catfish' but I've never smelled a catfish, so I'll say 'dank crypt': it's wet, earthy, mouldy, and creepy. Thrilling, in other words. "If you combine this with octanic acid, it smells like struck flint, I love it," says Tony, who is in the final stages of perfecting a recipe for it—Muddy Catfish Cocktail, anyone?
When I ask if there are any aromas that have defeated the Drink Factory team, they all burst out laughing (there's a lot of cackling and revolted shrieking in this office). 'The four types of cheesy feet,' groans one white-coated assistant while someone else over in the lab shouts, 'waxy goat!'.
But everyone agrees there is one smell more foul than any other, and that's castoreum. Squeezed from a sweet spot just next to the anal glands of the beaver, castoreum is often used to give expensive perfumes a 'leathery' note. But on its own, it's a stench strong enough to bring you to your knees. Sour, fleshy, pissy, fecal, it's a distillation of every cheese-encrusted crevice of the dirtiest man alive. It's as high as hairspray and as strong as skunk. It smells of vomit and carcasses and horse glue. And it lasts. And lasts. And lasts.
I know this, because a teeny, tiny dot of it got on to my leather jacket while I was at the Drink Factory. And three weeks later, it's still there, hanging in my hallway like a toxic cloud. Which means this whole article has left me about £300 down—but on the upside, I now always get two seats to myself on the bus.