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.