A Classic Cocktail, Without a Glass

By Heather Sperling
sperling may7 gin.jpg

Photo by Heather Sperling


With cocktails, it's usually "imbibe," not "inhale." But last weekend, in a sparse London basement, 30 strangers and I donned protective suits and sidled up to the humidifier. Tucked into a corner, this machine was our industrial-strength bartender for the evening, pumping gin and tonic mist into the room.

A small, two-level space in Soho had been borrowed for the occasion. A neon blue sign said "GIN," and after sheathing ourselves in thin, hooded jumpsuits, we went to a a vapor-free room with a tiny bar serving standard gin and tonics. The breathable G&Ts were downstairs; down a steep stairwell, where the door to the cocktail-inhaling room was barely visible for the boozy haze. Inside were a giant papier-mâché straw, an oversized, illuminated paper lime, and a pack of hooded "drinkers," dancing and breathing.

Most installation art is meant to provoke reaction and thought--this one, a breathable cocktail for breathable cocktail's sake, was simply meant to be enjoyed.

The concoction was top-shelf--Hendrick's gin and Fever Tree tonic--and when shot through a humidifier the gin's cucumber and juniper aromas came through to full effect. It was a pleasant scent, and I could imagine the boozy facial being a hit at a girl's spa weekend. But in a small subterranean room, lit by a single, bare bulb and filled with strangers in baggy white jumpsuits, it made for a decidedly strange, Willy Wonka Saturday night bar scene.

The masterminds, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, are best known for their structural achievements in the wobbly field of architectural Jell-O (jelly, in Brit-speak). To their credit, they consulted technicians, medics, and an explosion expert to ensure that their gin and tonic bio-dome wasn't overly intoxicating (or flammable). The two presided over the event decked out in lab coats and bow ties, clearly relishing the roles of mad, dapper cocktail scientists.

sperling may8 smocks.jpg

Photo by Heather Sperling

I asked them how it all came about. "We were inspired by Antony Gormley's installation 'Blind Light' at the Hayward Gallery," Bompas said. "He used industrial humidifiers to make a cloud out of water. We wanted to really sex it up and make our cloud out of alcohol, so it would be more disorientating."

"We just like doing really big things," Parr said.

Overall, it was boozy, sticky, and silly. Which was probably the point. Most installation art is meant to provoke reaction and thought. This one, a breathable cocktail for breathable cocktail's sake, was simply meant to be enjoyed.

When the humidifier had vaporized its final ounce, we headed down the street and ordered a glass of fino from the Spanish bar on the corner. It was dry, refreshing, and delightfully tangible.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/05/a-classic-cocktail-without-a-glass/17184/