Thinking outside the box at a Bronx cocktail lab
By Joe DiStefano

Upon entering the Liquid Lab in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, one might think that it is the uptown lair of a mad scientist, or perhaps a liquor wholesaler. Despite the vast selection of unusual booze and tons of specialized equipment amassed by cocktail consultant Junior Merino, aka the Liquid Chef and the man behind the lab, there is nothing mad about the lab. Instead it is quite the sane center of experimentation and exploration where acclaimed mixologist and spirits educator Merino teaches daylong mixology workshops.

The workshops provide attendees access to some 2,400 bottles of spirits—gin, vodka, rum, whisky, tequila, and mezcal—and liqueurs from such easily obtained varieties as Chartreuse Yellow and Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry (Blanc) to lesser seen ones like Agwa de Bolivia made from Bolivian coca leaves, guarana, and ginseng line the walls of this one-bedroom apartment given over to the art and science of mixology. There’s no lack of bitters. Merino stocks 30, from Fee Brothers Cherry to what is surely the world’s smallest bottle of Angostura.

From the time he was 10 years old the Mexican-born Merino’s parents instilled in him a passion for cooking, teaching him to draw from a diverse palette of ingredients; thus he comes at cocktails from a culinary perspective. In keeping with this sensibility there are more than 250 dried spices and herbs; several kinds of hot sauce, including the fiery chili paste Sambal Oelek; and a shelf devoted to preserves with everything from St. Dalfour Marmalade to Beech-Nut butternut squash baby food. There are also plenty of other oddball ingredients that don’t seem to have any place in cocktail creation, like the Italian antacid Brioschi and chapulines, the dried Mexican grasshoppers that are eaten as a snack.

Since Merino is as much a bar chef as he is a mixologist, there’s a strong focus on seasonal ingredients. In the summer months lychee fruit are available to be muddled into cocktails. Next Sunday’s Lab session will feature chayote, cranberries, gooseberries, persimmons, pomegranate, pumpkin, and squash.

Then there’s the equipment—and we’re not just talking about Boston shakers, bar spoons, and julep strainers, either. A miniature glass alembic still sits on a table. Nearby are refractometers to test brix (sugar level), a sous vide apparatus, hydrometers to measure density and alcohol levels, a cotton candy machine, and an ice cream maker. Merino also has several types of smokers and a liquid nitrogen canister handy.

It took four years to amass the vast array of spirits, equipment, and ingredients available at the lab. In 2005, when Merino and his wife, Heidi, created the Liquid Lab there was roughly half as much. Today it houses a half-million dollars worth equipment and ingredients and hosts daylong intensive workshops where participants nose spirits and create cocktails. It wasn’t always open to the industry though. Concern about being seen as a show-off kept the very private and low-key Merino quiet about the lab at first. “We didn’t want anyone to know about the lab,” Merino says, “so we never brought anyone.” Instead the couple would invite people interested in working on cocktail recipes to their apartment where they keep hundreds of bottles of liquor and other ingredients.

Four years of having people over to their apartment came to an end when, at the urging of Leblon cachaça, Liquid Lab was opened to bartenders, writers and brands in January 2009. “Leblon said that it was something people should have the option to experience where you can virtually find anything you might want from equipment, to ingredients from all over the world,” Merino recalls.

Lab sessions in the new space begin with a gentle warning. “Just remember, we only have eight hours,” Merino says with a smile at the start of each session when he gives participants a tour of the Lab and invites them to peruse the shelves. Its sound advice given the amount of ground covered. Over the course of an afternoon participants, each of whom is given a snazzy white Liquid Lab scientist coat to wear, are guided through a nosing and tasting of five varieties of five spirits. A typical progression is vodka, gin, cachaça, tequila, mezcal. Each spirit is tasted and nosed twice and everyone discusses the various flavors and aromas they pick up. Merino makes sure to include one or two distinctive spirits within each flight. A recent vodka lineup included Karlsson Virgin Gold Potato, which tastes like chocolate and Vermont Maple Gold, which tastes like toffee.

Spitting is encouraged, and given the amount of spirits being tasted, is almost mandatory if one plans to still be standing by the end of the afternoon. Sometimes there’s something so good people find themselves swallowing. Case in point: Grm cachaça, which has been aged for two years, and has remarkable notes of apple pie.

In between each tasting/nosing session of spirits Merino and each participant make a cocktail using the spirits they have just tasted along with a modifier provided by one of the lab’s sponsors, such as Combier (a French orange liqueur) or Castries (a peanut liqueur from St. Lucia), and as many other ingredients as they wish. Everyone then shares their cocktails with the group.

Even though the drinks are made in sample size cups folks get pretty loosened up by the second round. “People are free to express themselves and experiment at the Lab,” Merino points out, “from serving just the spirit alone with a mist of something to adding in a whole shelf’s worth of ingredients.”

One of the drinks Jason Littrell, of New York City’s the Randolph at Broome, made when he attended the Liquid Lab took the whole shelf approach. It contained Scorpion Mezcal Blanco, muddled grapefruit, lime, and grapefruit bitters, which were then put in a soda canister along with aloe vera juice, Leblon cachaça, and The Liquid Chef Elderflower-Ginger Syrup. The inspiration for the savory rim on this eclectic cocktail came from one of the snacks Heidi served: kettle-cooked barbecue potato chips. “The Liquid Lab was a great opportunity to experiment with an extremely broad array of flavors, textures, and processes,” Littrell says. “It was an inspiring seminar led by a master, but it never got preachy or pontifical.”

Nobody has ever crunched the numbers, but the sheer number of permutations of ingredients, not to mention equipment, is surely staggering for even the most inventive of mixologists. “If a scientist decided to start working on inventing cocktails, this is what their lab might look like,” David Catania, Brand Ambassador for Castries Peanut Rum Crème Liqueur, notes. “However it’s not about infinite random possible combinations, it is Junior and Heidi’s expert guidance that enables participants to realize their full creative potential. Working with Junior is an inspiration to both me and others in the industry; it’s all about consumer friendly cocktails that taste nothing short of amazing.”

Derek M. Brown a wine and spirits writer, educator, sommelier, and bartender from Washington, DC, shares Littrell and Catania’s sentiments. “Visiting Junior Merino’s lab was an eye-opener for me,” Brown recalls. “I’m used to creating specific drinks for inclusion on a menu or for my own enjoyment. At Merino’s lab the premise is exploratory and not the usual model of ideation/elaboration; this allows you to surprise yourself with new and interesting combinations. In fact, you’re just as likely to learn from your failures as you are from your successes.”

With all the nosing, tasting, and cocktail making going on the Merinos make sure to feed everyone. Breakfast is served after the first round of tasting and cocktail making. Their balanced breakfast of apple-cinnamon cereal with almonds, bananas, and raisins is a little different, however, it includes Castries, Chairman’s Reserve rum, and Kahlua. Lunch follows the same pattern with such items as tuna watermelon lollipops made with long pine peppercorn-infused Dewar’s 12-year-old Special Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky and pomegranate bay scallop ceviche prepared with Macchu Pisco and Combier. “Just because we’re not tasting doesn’t mean we’re not drinking,” Merino says. “Everything has alcohol in it.”

After lunch Merino showcases his molecular mixology creations, including a margarita marshmallow and an absinthe-Combier gummi. While these are creative and interesting in a gee-whiz sort of way it’s his infusions that really live up to Merino’s moniker, The Liquid Chef. Towards the end of each session he passes out a few and has people guess what’s in them. At one session the mystery libations were Highland Park infused with blue cheese, and Woodford Reserve infused with Cheddar. How’s that for a mixologist as mad scientist.

At Liquid Lab, anything is possible.

In case you’re wondering, the chapulines aren’t just taking up space on the shelves at the Liquid Lab. Like every other ingredient there the crunchy, salty little Mexican grasshoppers are used to make cocktails, mainly to infuse spirits and rim glasses.

Milena Gernandt of Café Ronda in New York City created a drink with them when she attended the Lab last April. Here’s the recipe:

2 oz Scorpion Mezcal Blanco
6 smashed chapulines
2 halved kumquats muddled
3/4 oz kaffir lime syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
Shake all together and double strain.