The Keefer Bar, located in Vancouver’s Chinatown, has the appearance of a postwar back-alley Asian apothecary-cum-opium-den. Behind the bar are jars of medicinal herbs—astragalus, magnolia bark, a fungus called Coriolus versicolor—that are used to make infusions and tinctures for the establishment’s delicious, well-balanced cocktails. The head bartender is a bright, extremely creative young woman named Danielle Tatarin.
But when I visited the Keefer last year, I wasn’t there for the herbal concoctions. I was there for the tuning forks.
No matter how inventive a bartender may be when it comes to choosing ingredients, she still has a limited number of ways to mix them. There’s shaking and stirring, of course. You can build a drink in the glass (like a gin and tonic) or whip it up in a blender (like a piña colada). A few minor sub-variations exist: muddled drinks, for which you crush an ingredient such as mint or fruit with a pestle; and rolled drinks, for which you pour the liquid from one vessel to another—a method that contributes to an excellent Bloody Mary. But that’s about it for mixing.
Unless, that is, you happen to have a tuning fork. There’s a theory making the rounds—I first heard it from David Wolowidnyk, who runs the bar at West, a well-regarded Vancouver restaurant—that vibrations of the right frequency will cause the molecules in a drink to rearrange themselves in curious ways, thereby altering or enhancing the flavor.
The Keefer is the only place I’m aware of that’s actually serving tuning-fork-blended cocktails, so I met there with several people, including David, Danielle, and a woman named Free Lee, who works at the bar and is also a somatic and energy therapist. In addition to its (possible) mixological applications, harnessing vibrations is a form of alternative medicine, in which tuning forks are placed on ailing people like acupuncture needles. (There’s also a fledgling industry selling “vibration infused” beverages intended to improve health. An Ontario company called Wave Miracle Water, for instance, offers water with “vibrational encoding” in four wellness-enhancing frequencies.)
Free had brought tuning forks for our experiment. Two identical Manhattans were poured out from the same mixing glass. A tuning fork in the pitch of C‑sharp was struck and the handle end was pressed against one glass; the other was left unmolested.
I sipped. And I was pretty convinced that the two drinks tasted subtly different, with the tuning-fork variant a hint brighter and livelier. This seemed undeniable proof of one of two things: either vibrations can change drinks, or I am highly susceptible to suggestion. I assumed the latter, but felt further experimentation was called for.
Back home, I bought my own tuning fork (pitch of A, 440 Hz) and started carrying it around to bars. One thing I learned rather quickly: pulling out a tuning fork in a bar and putting it against your drink is an effective way to ensure that no one will sit near you.
I tested the tuning fork on a variety of drinks, including Manhattans and daiquiris. Once, on my first sip, I was convinced that a properly tuned Manhattan was tastier and more luminous than a regular one, much as it had seemed in Vancouver. On the second sip, though, I couldn’t detect any difference.
I also tried a series of blind taste tests—putting out three glasses of a spirit, then leaving the room while someone applied a tuning fork to a single glass. I was able to correctly identify which drink had been “tuned” approximately one-third of the time.
So I altered my approach. Instead of putting the end of the fork against the glass, I started putting the tines into the drink itself. This created mesmerizing little ripples, but didn’t seem to alter the flavor. (Procedural note: I was unable to determine whether a vibrationally enhanced cocktail improved my sense of well-being, because it was impossible to control for the fact that drinking always seems to improve my sense of well-being.)
I still keep the tuning fork with me when I go out drinking. Who knows? Perhaps one day I’ll find the right drink, and a vibrational metamorphosis will take place. I’m also thinking of getting a larger tuning fork; perhaps I’m not applying enough hertz to the process. In the meantime, the tuning fork remains handy for another reason: sometimes I just don’t like people sitting too close to me at the bar.
How do tuning forks stack up against tried-and-true techniques? The head bartender of The Passenger's Columbia Room experiments.