Munchies

Meet the Bartender Who Tastes Colors

“I have synaesthesia whereby flavors conjure up colors. I can explain this drink as a vibrant yellow meets a soft pink.”

by Daisy Meager
Jan 12 2017, 1:00pm

Walking into bartender Alex McKechnie's research space, tucked away in a small corner of a London industrial estate warehouse, is a slightly overwhelming experience. It's part-booze cupboard, part-laboratory, and part-professional kitchen. My eyes dart from groaning shelves of alcohol and kitchen equipment to a sous vide water bath and what looks like a car battery.

"I'm on this weird path to become a master of making all drinks, whether that's a Japanese tea ceremony or distilling whisky. In this space, I can do anything," grins McKechnie.

He's not kidding.

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Bartender Alex McKechnie's pink-inspired cocktail. Photo by Alex McKechnie.

"My day job is consulting and creating cocktails for bars across London, which means I make drinks to fit a brief set out by a client," says McKechnie, as he starts today's task of testing an Aperol and cider cocktail. "I'll make around seven small versions of the drink with different formulas, using more expensive and cheaper ciders, for example. Then I go back to the client and say, this is the best way to make it, this is the cheapest way."

READ MORE: How to Turn a Bar Job Into a Cocktail Career

McKechnie also shares his creations with curious drinkers at "pop-up cocktail tasting event," The Guinea Pig Club.

"The drinks I make for The Guinea Pig cocktail club would never work in an establishment because they're too wacky," he explains. "But I have all these crazy ideas and I want to start making them and having people drink them."

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McKechnie in his East London research space. Photo by the author.

He continues: "So I thought, 'Let's do this pop-up where people come along, try the drinks, and pay what they want at the end.'"

Past Guinea Pig Club creations have been inspired by everything from modern art installations, McKechnie's dreams of walking in a forest, and a cup with what looks like paint running down its side. So, how does he go about deciding what will end up in cocktail form?

"It always starts with a concept," McKechnie explains. He looks around the workspace and picks up a pear-shaped bottle of grappa. "OK, you see this bottle? That looks exactly like the health potion bottle you see in video games. So I'll buy that grappa and figure out how to use it, and then I will make a drink that'll be the health potion drink."

"But it's got to be delicious. I really dislike going into a bar where a drink is interesting but not delicious. Every drink that I make and serve has to be really yummy."

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Kasuma cocktail with basil, chorizo, and Sicilian lemon oil. Photo by Alex McKechnie.

McKechnie talks me through his newest cocktail.

"The whole thing is based around an orange. You melt white chocolate, cocoa butter, orange colouring, and orange flavour," he explains. "Then you spray a ball of ice with the mixture and the chocolate instantly sets. When the ice melts, you're left with a white chocolate shell that looks and tastes like an orange."

"Then you put a cocktail inside through a hole and fill the remaining space with orange-flavoured air."

So, the idea is that you crack the shell to drink the cocktail? Not exactly. For McKechnie, it's got to be more complex than that.

"What my assistant and I are working on now is a ceramic straw which looks like an orange branch and will come out of the drink," he explains. "The finished thing will be hanging from an orange tree and it'll have to be plucked from a tree to serve."

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McKechnie's bartender briefcase. Photo by the author.

Realising my eyebrows have been creeping further and further up my forehead in amazement, I change the subject. What's the deal with the thing that looks like a car battery?

It's actually a laboratory vacuum.

"When you make a filter coffee, it passes through paper and you get that clarity, that clean flavour. Whereas, espresso has a lot of pressure so you can extract the intensity. The two never really cross over," says McKechnie. "It doesn't work to put paper in an espresso machine. So what we do is hook it up to this laboratory vacuum and essentially make espresso-like coffee but through the filter application."

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Purple and pink rosewater. Photo by the author.

"I'm always looking at closed down laboratory auctions. There's a website that I follow religiously. It's actually a little bit depressing! But the more things I get in here, the more I can do."

Sometimes, though, new drinks come about through trial and error. McKechnie beckons me over to the blender and puts in some rose petals along with half a jug of water. When he flicks the switch, the red petals turn a deep purple.

Above the din of the blender, he explains: "When you take red roses and put them in a blender with water, it turns the most brilliant royal purple. If you freeze that mixture, the water and the rose colour separates and makes a wavy pattern. Then we found out when it melts, it turns blue."

"And if you put anything acidic in it at any point," he continues, sprinkling in some powdered citric acid. "It turns pink. I have this joke that roses are red, violet, and blue."

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Marshroom cocktail, inspired by McKechnie's dreams of walking in a pine forest. Photo by Alex McKechnie.

As McKechnie continues to test different combinations of the Aperol and cider cocktail, I ask him about another of his secret drinks-creating weapons—one which only he can see.

"I have synaesthesia whereby flavours conjure up colours," he explains. "For me, it's really important when I'm making a drink but it's also really difficult to explain to anyone else. I can explain this drink as a vibrant yellow meets a soft pink. And you can imagine those colours but beyond that it has no real reference point."

READ MORE: We Spoke to the LA Bartender Who Smokes Cocktails with a Bong

Do the colours play a part in perfecting a recipe?

"So far, if the colours match, the flavours match. But I'm trying to prove that wrong," says McKechnie. "Because otherwise that means forever it'll be like that and then you're trusting in this wacky concept that may or may not be true."

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The cider and Aperol cocktail. Photo by the author.

Just as I'm about to leave McKechnie to tinker away with his coffee mezcal and mandarin infusions, I casually ask what other projects he has lined up this year.

"So, I read about this guy who made sushi levitate …"

I sit right back down.

"So, this guy essentially used cornstarch which was soaked into the rice to make it levitate and it got me obsessed about making a drink that would float in midair," McKechnie continues. "I went and bought a heap of strong magnets to make a rig but it didn't work. My friend lost his computer because it got too close to the magnets … I think I dedicated about 40 hours to the drink. It will happen one day."

I have no doubt it will.