Craig Schoettler, the cocktail chef at the Aviary in Chicago, looks like a scientific researcher at a mid-size university. He wears interesting rectangular glasses and, though soft-spoken, enters a room with authority. Before signing on as a barman with the chef and restaurateur Grant Achatz, Schoettler, a culinary-school graduate, had limited experience with how cocktail ingredients might work together to form new and interesting combinations. But like any scientist, he was intrigued by the question.
The Aviary opened in the spring, in a space adjacent to Achatz’s new restaurant, Next. The bar was still under construction when I flew to Chicago for a visit, but the cocktail-development program had been under way for months. I was laboring under the assumption that Achatz and his crew operated restaurants. I was wrong. They run a think tank. Some of their culinary and libationary ideas show promise, and some do not. The latter are abandoned; the former, painstakingly refined.
The ungainly term for the kind of experimentation Schoettler and a number of other bartenders are undertaking is molecular mixology—a variation on the cuisine trend of molecular gastronomy, of which Achatz is a leading light. The process often involves using high-tech equipment (reverse-osmosis tanks; small stills that make dark liquids clear; vacuum pots normally used for coffee) to disaggregate or intensify flavors and then reassemble them in unexpected ways. When it works, the drink can be a marvel. When it doesn’t—well, it’s still pretty interesting.
My least favorite of the cocktails I sampled was the Black-Truffle Negroni, a twist on the classic cocktail made with truffle-infused gin and served with a disconcerting bit of floating fungus. (I should note that when I sampled them, the drinks were still being adjusted, so I was essentially reviewing a Broadway show’s Hartford tryout.) The first sip was like a step into an Arabian tent furnished with elaborate carpets and tassels. The second sip was equally powerful, as was the third. Much as I loved the heroic opening, the drink became overwhelming, and I didn’t finish it. I would’ve preferred each subsequent sip to provide a lighter reminder of the first, like a string section quietly revisiting an overture. In other words, I wanted a cocktail that evolved as I drank it.
And that’s exactly what I got with a few other concoctions I tried. With these, Schoettler had monkeyed with the x-axis, causing the drinks’ flavors to shift subtly over time, like The Wizard of Oz’s Horse of a Different Color. Almost every cocktail evolves somewhat, of course: drinks on the rocks become more watery; those served “up” become warmer. The challenge is to harness these changes in ways that improve the experience.
One memorable drink, called the Blueberry, was served out of an elegant flat-sided carafe called a “porthole.” The carafe was filled with herbs, spices, dried citrus peels, and tea leaves before being topped off with rye whisky, vermouth, and verjus, a sour juice pressed from unripe grapes. On the table, the potion had the look of a steampunkish Victorian horticultural display; on the palate, it grew more powerful and complex by the minute.
Another x-axis drink, the Root Beer, is made by first producing a murky tea of sassafras, vanilla, licorice, star anise, birch bark, cardamom, and the like. Processed through a rotary evaporator, this becomes a clear but intensely flavorful liquid that is then mixed with kirsch brandy. The crystalline concoction—it looks like a tall glass of water—is served over three uncommonly perfect ice cubes infused with vanilla. As you drink and the cubes melt, the flavor ripens into something resembling the best, and most sophisticated, soda-fountain drink ever.
Experimentation at the Aviary isn’t limited to what’s in the glass. Achatz is also tinkering with other aspects of the bar-going experience. Customers, for instance, have no direct contact with what would elsewhere be called a bartender, instead observing the “chefs” at work through a mesh screen.
I asked a few other high-performing bartenders if they thought Achatz’s experiments would catch on. “We’ll end up using some of the experience,” said Joaquin Simo at Death & Company in New York. “They’re doing a lot of heavy lifting so the rest of us don’t have to.” Welcome, in other words, to one possible future of the high-end cocktail.