A Justifiable Taste Experiment
By Darren Atkins

If you found yourself sitting in a room at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic facing a large still-like contraption, a famous chef/avant garde scientist and a sophisticated English gin specialist, then all signs point to you being in attendance at Distillation for Flavor-Past, Present and Future.

Distillation for Flavor-Past, Present and Future was presented by the tag team of Oxley Gin Global Ambassador Merlin Griffith and the French Culinary Institute’s Dave Arnold who is known for being a culinarily focused experimental genius and mad scientist of sorts. These two took their audience through a history of distillation and various distillation methods followed by a demo by Arnold who illustrated for the crowd, just what he and Griffith had been talking about. Of course no demonstration at a cocktail conference is complete without a tasting and Arnold didn’t disappoint as he distilled raw materials chocolate and jalapeno into flavorful distillates for the audience to taste.

It was obvious what the attendees were tasting because Arnold had distilled right up at the front of the room, but with words thrown around like “rotary evaporation” and “cold low pressure distillation”, most people may have been confused. But rest assured, just like the distillates Arnold produced, it all came out clear.

Arnold and Oxley explained that the way to understand alcohol’s relationship and progress with flavor is to become familiar with two main tools used in beverage laboratories; the gas chromatograph and sensory analysis. The gas chromatograph analyzes a liquid and separates the compounds through vaporization. Sensory analysis is the scientific method used for growth, analyzing and intercepting those responses received from the senses. Griffith explains why this is essential, “Your sense of smell and taste are very primal, and from an evolutionary stand point these would have told you if something was safe to eat or drink, you actually remember every single flavor or aroma that you come across, and you can train your senses by tasting lots.”

Arnold was ready to have his audience taste quite a number of things and he turned to his rotary evaporator, which is a device used in chemical laboratories for the efficient and gentle removal of solvents by samples by evaporation. Arnold comments, “Alcohol is a fantastic medium for carrying flavor and volatile aromas.” He then conjured up unique distillates, serving up an array of pure flavors from raw ingredients Cilantro and Basil which are quickly transformed into 120 proof potions of flavor which will only last on the palate for 24 hours. Habanero Chili was the next flavor out of the roto-vap, as Arnold affectionately calls it. ”What are you guys tasting now? The habanero – the flavor of this one will kick your ass.” Arnold shouts. Other flavors were to follow including chocolate, and caraway and fennel distillate.

Of course if you know anything about Dave Arnold this next part will come as no surprise. Arnold then addressed the crowd and informed them that they were to take part in a Scandinavian drinking ritual called Skoal. With actor Max Von Sydow as the back drop, we proceeded to, as instructed by Arnold partake in this rather masculine, and traditional Northern European ritual whereby the drinker must pose glaringly into a lens or audience and proceed to down whatever potent potable he or she has in their hands. The caraway and fennel seed distillate that had been concocted in Arnold’s roto-vap before our eyes would be the eventual Skoal for the day for Arnold.

Before getting to the Northern European spirited shot ritual Griffith and Arnold did touch on the fact that, unless you live in New Zealand, the distillation and selling of alcohol by an individual is illegal. Many people cannot believe that this practice is illegal, but US law is clear; you can’t distill alcohol and sell it without a license, which is very difficult for an individual to obtain.

Though currently US law restricts people from distilling alcohol unless they are a certified distiller, Arnold says, “Distillation in this country is a big movement, I think a lot of people are interested and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 10 years or so, on a small scale this thing became legal. The only reason I am not in danger is that I am only playing with liquids that are up to 3 liters. What the law is intended to do is stop you from taking a field full of corn and turning it into booze, without paying the government taxes.”

Arnold and Griffith may have taxed our brains a little bit as they shared their great love, knowledge, and a somewhat of an obsession for the distillation process but they truly brought to light an interesting and unique way of tasting and experiencing alcoholic beverages through the distillation process.