People usually shrug Bangkok off as a city better known for its skybar views than its well-crafted cocktails. But look harder, and you'll find renegade bartenders fighting hard against that stereotype. The city is teeming with diehard aficionados with amaro collections, housemade bitters, and, less prominently, a flair for using the modernist cooking staple—the sous vide technique.
There's nothing new about using sous vide cookers to make cocktails, or at least that's what the experts at Bangkok's best bars kept telling me. I'd heard about the technique being used at some bars in America, and was curious to see if the trend was bubbling under the surface of Thailand's cocktail scene. It turns out that many have been quietly cooking sous vide concoctions for years.
The sous vide technique (cooking something at a low temperature inside a sealed plastic bag in a water bath) is nothing new, yet the concept hasn't become a widespread staple in the bar world. We were brought up on shaken and stirred, but Bond never said anything about water baths. If you're not in the restaurant industry, the sous vide movement probably slipped under your radar.
Chefs love using the technique because it consistently yields perfectly cooked results. Vacuum seal a chicken breast, throw it in a sous vide cooker, and walk away from the task for a while. When you get back some hours later, you're going to have a tender piece of meat evenly cooked through. Thanks to the airtight pouch, nothing evaporates away, so the ingredients hold on to their natural flavors and juices. The sous vide cooker circulates the water to keep the temperature the same throughout the container, leading to an evenly cooked product. No burnt edges, no dry chicken.
Bartenders want the same thing; not juicy chicken parts, but consistently perfect results with pure flavors.
Joseph Boroski—essentially a brand name in the Bangkok bar industry—brought his sous vide cooker over to Thailand from New York several years ago. Today, he uses the tool primarily to make liqueurs, bitters, and infusions at his bars J. Boroski and BAR:School, two of the city's meccas for cocktail lovers.
"The process includes vacuum-sealing a base spirit with ingredients such as fruit, herbs, sugars, or other botanicals, and then heating it in a sous vide water bath," Boroski said. "This works incredibly well and relatively quickly in nicely binding flavors and aromas to spirits."
While vacuum-sealing alcohol and cooking it for hours may seem overly high-tech, sous vide cooking isn't a gimmicky trick aimed at impressing customers. Bangkok bartenders aren't necessarily advertising the technique, and I had to ask around to find out who was using it.
"We never promoted anything as a sous-vide cocktail, it's just made our preparation a lot easier and our flavours better," Sapparot Group founder Ben-David Sorum said.
Sorum and Sapparot Group are behind Bangkok hotspots like Lady Brett and U.N.C.L.E., to name a few. The Swedish native has been living in Bangkok for about a decade and made the connection to try sous-vide cooking five years ago. When the results of his rhubarb compotes weren't quite right, he turned to sous vide.
"We did young rhubarbs, young ginger, beetroot slices for coloring, cardamom seeds, and vanilla beans and just let that sous vide around 75 degrees for two hours. It just turned out great. It had this awesome, compact vanilla flavor."
That promise of compact flavor is at the heart of most sous vide efforts in Bangkok. Sous vide bypasses the harshness of traditional cooking methods, is faster than cold infusion, and retains all of the liquids. Ultimately, sous vide preserves the integrity of the flavors.
On a dark alley in Bangkok's Ekkamai neighborhood lies the elusive Sugar Ray: You've Just Been Poisoned, a bar open just three days a week. Beverage Director Vipop "Tor" Jinaphan recently teamed up with Chain Thanakeeree of Sousvide Thailand to create new spins on classics. They used the sous vide technique to get the most out of trickier ingredients.
"Ingredients like vanilla and star anise are no problem for cold infusions, but lighter flavors like cacao nibs, black pepper, or green apple pose a bigger challenge," Jinaphan said. "It's better with a sous vide machine."
With jazz humming in the background of the candlelit bar, Jinaphan demonstrated how he's incorporated sous vide into his repertoire. To create a more palatable Martinez cocktail, he started by cooking raspberries, vanilla, orange, and sweet vermouth sous vide overnight. Then he mixed gin, maraschino liquor, and lime bitters before adding in the sous vide element to finish the aptly dubbed Framboise Martinez.
Colin Tait, the Scottish bar manager of Vesper cocktail bar and restaurant, also turned to sous vide to punch up a classic for the holidays. He cooked his barrel-aged Manhattan sous vide with fruits and spices to make a more intense, well-rounded drink that tasted like Christmas cheer.
Again, you're not going to see the glowing computer screen of a sous vide cooker sitting at a bar like Vesper or Sugar Ray. The customer-facing cocktail crafting stays sexy, limited to swizzle sticks and shakers, as the the water bathing happens behind the scenes way ahead of time.
The unintentionally underground trend is sort of perfect for the Bangkok landscape. Many of the city's top cocktail bars fall somewhere under the speakeasy umbrella. Sugar Ray doesn't have a sign. The media won't publish J. Boroski's address. When you make your way up the dark hallway stairs to U.N.C.L.E., you feel like you've come across a well-kept secret. In Thailand's biggest city, the more clandestine a concept the better. But sous vide may not go unnoticed for long.
"The sous vide trend in Thailand is growing rapidly," Thanakeeree said. "Our customers range from café, restaurants, and steakhouses to avant-garde fine dining and chain restaurants. The uses of sous vide are even expanding from restaurants to street stalls and bars."
Hopefully it can finally do something about those lackluster drinks at skybars.
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January, 2015.