These Cocktails Taste Like an Opera

Tony Conigliaro is the man famous for deconstructing the cocktail into its molecular components, and then building it back up again—like Nietzsche, but tastier. I visited his laboratory to find out what inspires him to make drinks that taste like a...

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Sep 13 2015, 7:00pm

The building in Bethnal Green is yellow, and parked directly in front of it is a yellow van. Two men stand in front of the building's small, also-yellow door, smoking. I scan the entrance system but notice the door is unlocked, so I enter. Inside, the walls are forgivingly white, and at the far end of the corridor, a room contains a small startup of 20 people, their faces obscured by humongous Macs. An empty packet of BBQ-flavoured crisps sits on the adjacent stairs.

This is not where I had expected to find Tony Conigliaro, one of the the world's most inventive mixologists and the man behind world-renowned bars such as 69 Colebrooke Row and the Zetter Townhouse. A member of the small group of forward-thinking, technique-focused mixologists that includes the likes of Booker and Dax's Dave Arnold, Conigliaro's famous for deconstructing the cocktail into its chemical components, and then building it back up again. I'm not sure precisely what I had expected; perhaps cold steel walls and sterilised lab equipment. Something from Brave New World, maybe.

Just as I begin to think I've come to the wrong place, a lady dressed in a lab coat emerges from a hidden corner. Relieved, I follow her into the new hub of The Drink Factory, Conigliaro's umbrella company for his drink work and collaborations, preparing myself for wall-to-wall fridges containing animal embryos and strobe lighting, but the first thing I see are the books. Hundreds of them: short story collections, novels, and photography albums.

Before I'd even shaken his hand and he had taken me on the grand tour of his new lab (I can say, happily, that it did contain some real curiosities, like Swedish whiskey infused with castoreum—or beaver gland, in normal parlance), I realised that I had misread Tony, whose reputation as a cocktail scientist belies the presence of a deeply artistic pedigree; whose drinks, whilst constructed with centrifuges and pipettes, are far closer to stories than spreadsheets.

To drink one of Tony's cocktails is to feel—quite simply—transported, which seems to me, at least, to be the end goal of all great art. I had many questions for the man and the artist.

Photo by David Whelan

MUNCHIES: You've often been compared to food visionaries like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. What's your relationship like with them? I think that when you're dealing with a similar issue, you end up having conversations, of course. But they were way ahead in the culinary world, so I wanted to design a new language that bartenders could work with, rather than it being derivative.

What's with the new lab? We moved out here because our old place is getting turned into flats, which seems to be happening everywhere these days. We're working on some new projects, and it's nice to have a larger space. Now we've got this large lab for practical experience. Our bartenders can come in and discuss concepts, but also get their hands dirty.

How did all this lab equipment come about? My kitchen was, and is, small. I couldn't afford a chiller, so I borrowed a Rotavapor and combined that with a fish-tank pump. Then somebody loaned me a centrifuge, but I couldn't use it at home … It was way too expensive.

As soon as we opened up 69 [Colebrooke Row], it all went in there. But it kept on growing… Now people offer us their new equipment all the time—either to use it or road test it.

Your foundation is in art. How did it end up graduating to science-based drinks? I started out doing smelly paintings, paintings with aroma. I had my studio in Hoxton Square, before anyone was there, and I just needed to fund it. So I took a job as a bartender. Before I knew it, I was asking questions like, this martini, but what does it do? And why does it do it? How does it do it?

So you broke it down into food science? Once you've looked at something close enough, you end up with the molecular. Then you start getting some of the answers.

Is cocktail-making an art or a science? It's definitely an art. Science answers the questions, but our project as a whole is far more romantic. We're based in humour, whilst we take the work incredibly seriously; we want our drinks to be fun.

Talk to me about your process. We try to tell a story—we call that a diorama. I do a lot of drawings to help myself and my team visualise. Each drink is sort of a stage set, and the ingredients are the actors. They're all saying things in a sequence.

Take our drink The Rose, which we based around the idea of walking into an English rose garden. The crucial ingredient is a food-grade perfume that we make in-house, which we put on top of a sugar cube. Then we cover it all in champagne, so what you end up getting is a faint smell of roses on the top that increases in strength as you drink it. The deeper you get into the rose garden, the more you're seduced.

Did you have to learn how to make perfume? Yes. I had to buy this bloody expensive book Perfume and Flavour: Materials of Natural Origin by Steffan Arctander, and teach myself. It's a very similar process, with essential oils being the major crossover. Learning that opened my eyes to what we could do with a cocktail. Now we work with perfumers all the time.

Is collaboration crucial, then, to the Drink Factory's development? The Drink Factory started off as a blog, because I really wanted to reach out to people and talk about all the things I was doing. Most people who come down to speak to us are outside of the industry. I've worked with nuclear physicists, neurologists—even a sound engineer, who was trying to do what we do with drinks with music. My lab assistant, Zoe, is working with Charles Spence at Oxford University on a project on music and flavour. We took that to another level when we made drinks for the Holland Park open-air opera.

Tell me more about your drink for the Opera. The opera was Adriana Lecouvreur, which contained poison violets. So we made a poison violet drink. It was great fun, and nobody died. We didn't let on to the audience that we knew the content of the opera—just in case they didn't—so it was really satisfying to see people go "ah!" during the poisoning scene and rush to the bar.

Where would you place the Drink Factory in the London cocktail scene? We're unique, sure, but I love the dynamic of a cocktail bar. 69 Colebrooke Row is and always will be about the drinks, whether you appreciate them on the level of "oh, that tastes nice!" or "wow, that's speaking to me." I don't mind either way. We just want to make people happy. If they want to drink, fine. If they want to come have a chat about everything else, sure thing.

Is there any particular drink you're especially proud of? The Soy Cubano was fun, we tried to combine the romance of Havana—a place I adore—and the literal reality of the movie Soy Cuba. There's something about Cuba that is full and round, entirely immersive. And, obviously, we got stuck. There were a lot of buts. We thought of Cuban rum, with the sugarcane notes, but then we needed it taste sweaty, with hints of tobacco, but then it needed to be fuller …

Photo courtesy of 69 Colebrooke Row

We went back to our literal idea and started adding soy sauce. We went through hundreds of varieties, searching for the perfect one. Eventually we got white soy sauce, which was perfect. And then suddenly, we had a drink.

Click here to make the Soy Cubano.

What new projects are you working on now? We're working on the drinks list at the new Zetter Townhouse. We're using the germ of what we did there, and expanding it in a very different way, specifically in terms of presentation ... And that's all I'll say on that. Is that enough of a carrot?

Thanks for talking with us.

This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October, 2014.

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