The six visitors stood in white lab coats, staring at the incredible bounty they'd stumbled upon: floor-to-ceiling shelving displaying a library of $400-plus bottles of tequila, boutique sakes, rare piscos from Brazil, vodkas and gins from around the world, and exotica such as dehydrated grasshoppers, flavored foams, dragonfruit puree, cashew water, banana blossom sugar, 30-odd kinds of honey, and on and on.
For bartenders from Philadelphia, where spirit selection is limited by the State Store system, it was an especially shocking vision. "I thought my head would explode!" said Katie Loeb (last of Chick's Wine Bar; currently opening the revived Oyster House on Sansom Street). "It was out of control."
Loeb was one of six bartenders who traveled to Kingsbridge, Bronx, to visit this Willy Wonka factory of drink-slinging operated by world-famous bartender "Liquid Chef" Junior Merino. Merino is a beverage consultant for Walt Disney Resorts and dozens of restaurants, including the Modern in New York and Tequilas in Philadelphia.
Like Wonka's factory, the Liquid Lab, which is sponsored by liquor companies and thus free to invited guests, is open only to a select few - no more than eight people on a bimonthly basis. For a serious bar chef working in a city with a still-fledgling cocktail scene, the invitation offers an unparalleled opportunity for inspiration. Should it require squandering a rare Sunday off to travel to New York to spend the day making and tasting drinks - well, art is all about sacrifice.
And so it was on a recent Sunday morning when a crew of high-achieving drink makers, a subset of what Loeb calls the local Cocktail Mafia - all running on scant sleep since closing their respective establishments - found themselves staring down the possibilities.
On hand were Phoebe Esmon (Chick's Wine Bar and the Ugly American); Tom Pittakas (Alison Two); Andres Sanchez (Positano Coast); and Keith Raimondi and Stephen Seibert (both of the Garces Restaurant group; both currently working to open Village Whiskey).
Attendees were first taken into a tasting room to begin a series of spirit tastings (beginning with vodka, and then gin, cachaça, tequila and mezcal). Between the tastings was a lab session, in which attendees were encouraged to go to their work station and develop two cocktails using the tasted spirit, a liqueur, and anything else they desired.
The mixologists spent a moment or so dreamily looking around before grabbing their muddlers, shakers, and spoons. And then, a rush of activity: Fruit and herbs were chopped up in a flash. Bottles of syrups and fresh juices flew across the table. Requests for various salts and purees were barked.
Esmon muddled corn, red bell pepper, avocado, and poblano peppers together with Siembra Azul Tequila Blanco, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and Key lime juice. Loeb melded strawberries with gin, tarragon, and agave nectar. Sanchez whipped up Castries peanut rum cream, fresh ginger, white chocolate syrup, and a kiss of white truffle honey.
The results were passed around for tasting and Merino's gentle commentary. "This tastes good, but it should be strained again," he said of one. "Too spicy," he said of another.
Some of the on-the-fly preparations displayed brilliance and natural harmony; others were muddy with too many flavors. "This is completely different from the way I usually work, where it will take hours for me to develop a concept," Raimondi said.
Merino prepared some of his signature drinks, including a batida, or Latin-style milkshake, with condensed milk, banana, and cachaça, and margarita jelly buttons, served in a cloud of "air" salt. He later demonstrated the technique of adding liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze the concoctions, stirring slowly to form a smooth, creamy sorbet.
Merino, who's working on a book and his own line of cocktail enhancements, has built a career on this sort of hands-on education. His Alchemix, a state-of-the-art classroom on a bus, tours his native Mexico, and has trained about 750 bartenders.
As the seven-hour session wore on, the cumulative effects of the tastings (even though participants swished out the tasting spirits) took hold. Heads lolled a bit; a few bartenders announced they were getting tipsy. Occasional smoke breaks, coffee, and catered snacks such as alcohol-soaked ceviche fortified them.
By hour four, the drinks became more daring; work stations got a bit sloppier. Simcoe hops was added to a banana-grapefruit mixture. Thyme was set afire to create a smoky whisper in the glass. Salami-infused mezcal made an appearance, as did roasted fibrous strands of agave and fig arrack.
For some, Merino's library was a reminder of the limitations of home. "It's great to work this way and play with all of his stuff, but I know won't be able to get it back in Philly," said Sanchez, who would have to adapt the recipes to serve them at Positano Coast.
Still, the brainstorming produced plenty of new ideas. Raimondi said he's developing a drink for Village Whiskey inspired by a chocolate truffle Merino made with mezcal, and he's looking forward to introducing some molecular-gastronomy-style concoctions in the future.
"I'm planning to serve little amuse-bouches to the bar, maybe foam on a spoon with little pearls of alcohol," Pittakas said. "And I'm definitely getting myself a liquid nitrogen tank."
Over the course of the day the crew talked shop: the best kind of silicone molds for ice cubes, the availability of green versus yellow chartreuses in Pennsylvania - even how to carbonate beverages, including homemade ginger beer that could also, if need be, serve as a basting liquid for a whole roast pig.
Seven hours of lab time - "totally overwhelming," said Raimondi; "my tongue is numb," said Loeb - was followed by a dinner downtown at Rayuela where Merino's mixology ("Absinthe," with celery, granny smith apple, citrus, Le Tourment Vert, cachaça) was downed in a contemporary Latin restaurant setting. The night was capped with a stop at P.D.T. (Please Don't Tell), an East Village speakeasy where the entrance is through a secret doorway in a phone booth, the cocktails are of the haute, Old-Fashioned-with-bacon-infused-whiskey-and-maple-syrup variety, and hot dogs wrapped in bacon were easily grabbable for the limo ride back.
By midnight, conversation had lulled to drink-saturated silence. The Philly chapter of the Cocktail Mafia was exhausted, intoxicated, overstimulated - and ready to spread the word about good drinking.
"It was an intense day. . . . But every time we come together to do something like this it really helps us strengthen Philly's cocktail culture," Seibert said. "It helps us push the limits of what we can make."
Acai Spirit Lifter
Makes one cocktail
1 1/2 ounces Acai juice
A couple of fresh ginger slices
2 ounces Siembra Azul tequila
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce agave nectar
Sprig of lemon thyme
1. Muddle the ginger with the agave nectar. Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with two scoops (about 11/2 cups) of ice. Shake.
2. Pour into your glass of choice, with the ice. (Andres Sanchez prefers a Reidel glass.)
3. Give the sprig of lemon thyme a slap with your hand to release the oils and aromas. Garnish with the lemon thyme.
Smoky Scorpion Nectar
Makes one cocktail
2 ounces Scorpion Silver Mezcal
1 ounce acerola juice
3/4 ounce fresh mamei (like a cross between papaya and mango)
Juice of 1 fresh lime
3/4 ounce agave nectar
1/2 ounce D'Aristi rum and Mayan honey liqueur
Hibiscus flower, for garnish
1. Measure out all the ingredients into a pint glass.
2. Pour into a blender with two scoops of ice (about 11/2 cups).
3. Blend for about 10 seconds or until slushy. Pour into a goblet.
4. Garnish with hibiscus flower.