At Momofuku Ssäm Bar’s Booker and Dax, Dave Arnold makes mixology magic.
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As director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, Dave Arnold knows a thing or two about how to manipulate ingredients’ flavors and textures. His recently opened Booker and Dax, a cocktail den in the back of David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar, has the drinks perfectionist putting his high-tech methods to use inventing tasty tipples—and bringing new levels of efficiency to the cocktail-making process while he’s at it.
We caught up with Arnold and bar manager Tristan Willey, who showed us how to distill horseradish, caramelize the sugars in sweet vermouth, and “nitro muddle.” The result of these rather esoteric culinary antics: damn fine cocktails.
Arnold uses liquid nitrogen, which registers at –321 F, to efficiently chill glassware to his ideal temperature, into which he pours delicious intoxicants.
As Arnold swirls the nitrogen in the bottom of two champagne flutes, the glasses begin to frost over (every part except the stem), and a cloud of vapor dramatically spills out over the rims. His eyes light up with excitement. “Once you start using liquid nitrogen, you become entranced by it,” he says. “I actually have to be careful about how much I love it.”
Another application for liquid nitrogen that Arnold recently discovered is what he calls “nitro muddling,” through which he rapidly infuses a cocktail with the flavor of an herb or citrus peel while keeping large particles out of the drink. “If you’re using a green herb, it will turn the cocktail bright green,” he says. The technique involves freezing an herb or citrus peel at the bottom of a glass by pouring liquid nitrogen over it, then muddling it until it shatters into a fine powder. Add the powder to liquor, along with any other ingredients, shake as you would a normal cocktail, and pour the result through a tea strainer. The very fine particles are left in the liquid, while larger ones remain in the strainer. Intense color and flavor? Yup. Annoying solid bits floating around? Nope.
The Red-Hot Poker
Time was, bartenders at inns would heat a cocktail by sticking a red-hot iron or poker into a fire, then submerging it into the drink. The bartenders at Booker and Dax heat cocktails with a 500-watt custom-made electric poker that they heat to 1,500 F.
For one resulting drink, Friend of the Devil, Willey mixes Rittenhouse Rye, Cocchi sweet vermouth, Campari, Pernod, water, and Angostura bitters into a glass and then plunges in the red-hot poker. The poker ignites the alcohol in the drink (showmanship at its finest) and caramelizes the sugars in the sweet vermouth, burning off a bit of the alcohol and bringing out the flavor of the herbs in the spirits.
“Have you tasted raw horseradish on its own?” Arnold asks. “There’s a purity of flavor, a cleanliness.” A rotary evaporator (or rotovap) allows him to extract that flavor through vacuum distillation, without cooking the horseradish, into a potent horseradish essential oil, or distillate. He uses the distillate in a drink called Lady of the Night—a spin on the classic Bloody Mary.
To make the cocktail, Arnold starts with a drop of the horseradish distillate, a drop of saline solution, and El Tesoro Reposado tequila. He then adds centrifuge-clarified lime juice, Sriracha hot sauce, tomato juice, and Worcestershire. (The centrifuge spins extremely fast, creating the centrifugal force that separates liquids according to density, allowing for clarification.) The mixture is stirred with ice, strained into a liquid nitrogen–chilled coupe, and finished with black pepper and a parsley leaf.