Photo: Idandersen, Flickr
Brillat-Savarin recorded in his elegant and classic tome, The Physiology of Taste (1825), "I am...tempted to believe that smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose." Though lacking modern science to prove it, he couldn't deny the inherent, but elusive connection between aroma and flavor -- the subject of a weekend-long seminar at Astor Center in New York City.
"Most of what we perceive to be taste is actually smell," explained Audrey Saunders, lauded mixologist and owner of the Pegu Club (NYC). Friday evening at a panel discussing the alchemy of cocktail aromatics, Saunders revealed a few of her secrets to expressing fragrance through cocktails.
Saunders first began to experiment with aroma around the time she worked at the Carlyle Hotel while preparing for a week tending bar at the London Ritz. She wanted to create an aromatic cocktail using gin and tea -- the patron spirits of English imbibing. Her experiments faltered until she realized (with the advice of one Harold McGee) that egg white is an excellent conductor of scent and after a few iterations, created what is now a Pegu Club mainstay, the Earl Grey MarTEAni. Throughout the process she discovered a few key lessons about building fragrant cocktails that apply to any bar -- home or professional. See them after the jump.
1. Egg white is the perfect aroma conductor. Shake an egg white vigorously into a cocktail to create a top layer of froth. This will buoy and preserve scent until the last drop has been drunk.
2. Egg whites need finesse. "After a few minutes, egg white starts to smell like wet dog," said Saunders. To demonstrate, she explained her theory of the pisco sour. "You can imagine in a place like Peru," (where the pisco sour originated), "with heat and humidity, egg white will start to smell pretty quickly." Saunders believes the finishing touch of Angostura bitters was to preserve and scent the egg white. In such cocktails, she recommends adding a citrus twist, bitters or herbs to garnish.
3. Every bar should have its own spice rack. Not unlike a kitchen, Saunders recommends keeping a collection of spiced tinctures for added layers of aroma. At Pegu, she always stocks the bar with a set of single note spices from cardamom to pepper. To make a liquid spice, add ½ to 1 ounce of a spice to 1 cup of 100 proof vodka. Let it sit for a week and strain into a dashing bottle.
4. Scent can also be a spectacle. "Dry ice is great channel for aroma," said Saunders as she dropped a tiny cube into a tea ball. She lowered it into a glass, dripped an essence over top and added liquid. The cocktail bubbled aromatic fog. Saunders warned of using dry ice: "Glassware should be a tall column. A wide opening, like a snifter, will allow too much CO2 to escape into a guest's face." Using gloves or tongs while handling apply the same logic as using a tea ball-both provide a buffer between you and mouth-burningly low temperature ice.