08 January 2009

Thoughts on Alchemy Part 1 by Giles Gavin Cowen

The Modern Mans Alchemist

For most the word alchemy will conjure images of ancient monks or spiritual men attempting to transmute or magically turn any worthless metal into gold. I am sure images of ritual chanting or the signs of the zodiac being used for their magical properties will appear at the forefront of our minds. The powerfully driven media machine has led us to believe that these noble of men, dare I say scientists, were in-fact magicians no less. Calling upon cosmic energy to make gold from water, gaining riches and cursing themselves at the same time. These fictions reign supreme over this all but lost art form. There is no doubt that alchemy was both a spiritual and physical pursuit, where each alchemist would lean more to one side or the other, perhaps finding a harmony between both . The technology and instruments the employed as far back as 500BCE were stunningly advanced for there time. Some still exist and are used sparsely to this day. Admittedly the modern processes are refined, to a degree, but nevertheless easily recognisable by their heritage and ancestors.

The fundamental principle of alchemy is transmutation. Described as.

“the fundamental change of one thing into another from a grosser, impure state to a more
Refined, balanced and pure state.”

If taken in its broadest sense one could very easily apply this principle, of transmutation, to the creation of a cocktail, or a spirit. When creating a cocktail, we begin with a set of ingredients “gross” or “impure” in nature. Normally these will include a spirit, a mixer, a sweetening or souring agent and bitters or a binder. With a measure of work and understanding of each ones nature, their nature being how the flavours will interact with one another, whether they will compliment and sit happily side by side or constantly overpower and suppress one-another, it is possible to achieve a perfectly balanced, refined state. Each flavour existing in harmony with the next. Each flavour being a product of the next, interdependent upon each other to compliment and flow seamlessly across the taste buds. Even in the relationship of ingredients in a cocktail we can see the Alchemists influence.

Alchemist laboured under the condition of there being only four elements. Each one in harmony with the next, each one a product of each other. You would be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu , for verification all you would need do is look up a paragraph. This rotation and interlinking relationship between the elements is obvious in practices of both alchemy and modern day sciences. Earth (solid) can be transmuted to water (liquid) by melting or dissolution in water. A simple modern example of this being either melting a chocolate, thus creating a sauce or even taking a sugar cube and dissolving it in a hot tea. Water can be transmuted to air through boiling, an obvious offspring of any pot of tea you have ever boiled. Air (gas) to water is perhaps most notable in the process of distillation. Three states of matter are actually present during distillation.. We begin with water, which is heated and becomes air. Air is then condensed and transmutes back into its original form of water. Giving us, perhaps the most perfect example of the relationship between these elements, where fire is also present in the heating of the water. Air to Fire is, still further, depicted in combustion or what could in modern terms be described as an explosion. These elements shaped much of the history and work undertaken by many notable alchemists.

Later in the history of Alchemy, one of the greatest alchemists named Paracleus came upon a new wave of thought. He created the three principles. Mercury-spirit, Sulphur-soul and later Salt-body. This ideology had a resounding impact with most subsequent alchemic work being based around the three principles rather than the four elements. Paracleus defined them as the three prime essences; sulphur being that which boils described as oil. Mercury rises as fumes and salt lays in the ashes. Alchemy regards the essences as the basic makeup of any object, not just a metal or a water but inclusive of flora and fauna. They were great leaps ahead of their time in that they could extract, what was described as mercury form a plant using fermentation to gain alcohol from its inherent natural sugars. The spirit of sulphur of a plant was its essential oil, extracted by either using distillation or a crude pressing method. The plants salt or solid body form was what lay in the ashes. A process called calcination, which put very simply is to burn a substance until it is ash. This ash is then taken and mineral salts retrieved.

These three “principles” can reside within any and all matter. They are the basis of all that is. Take any object, for our purposes a piece of lead will do nicely, then take it apart piece by piece. Purify it refine its gross and impure nature. What would be left is pure mercury, pure sulphur and pure salt. Contemporary physicists would refer to these principles and neutrons, protons and electrons. Again a perfect example of how the alchemists were laying the foundations for modern science, most likely completely and blissfully unaware of the effect they would have.

Among their most notable of leaps into the modern world is the deep understanding of the effect that heat has on any compound. As I briefly touched on earlier calcination is probably the simplest example. On a more complex level distillation techniques would be used to render spirit from wine making what could easily be described as the original eau de vie. However in doing this they stumbled across the fact that alcohol will boil at around 80c enabling them to render a spirit of around 50-60abv from wine. This was named, imaginatively “the spirit of wine” and would then be used in the process of herbal tinctures or for medicinal remedies. In accordance with the pure nature of the alchemist, any water being used must be distilled and therefore purified before use. This process was time consuming and arduous but is host to the dedication and patience of the alchemist to see everything that begins through to its finale. After the completion of the purification, if one were to have created earth from the water, or put in other terms, frozen this refined water creating ice. This would then become what we now see as completely clear ice, seen in many hundreds of ice sculptures and bars throughout the world. This ice holds properties far more desirable, to any bartender, than normal ice. Its complete lack of flavour and extremely slow dilution make it a tool with which experimentation can bring very interesting results.

The fashion for herbal remedies has, recently, been re-incarnated across our high streets. People flood to buy Echinacea, or whatever happens to be the latest in fashionable antioxidant flush herb or fruit. Even St. Johns Wort has been revisited by scientists, and has since been proven to be as credible and functional of an anti-depressant as Prozac, albeit minus most of the side effects. This craze is relatively young among mainstream consumers , though the techniques and principles were, of course, being used by alchemists thousands of years before. The methodology has changed little over the centuries. The plant is either pressed or distilled in alcohol, rendering mercury. The oil will rise to the top of the distillate and can be easily skimmed from the top giving us a herbal tincture or essential oil.

The true path of the alchemist is an in-depth, physical, spiritual and mental path undertaken by men seeking riches, enlightenment or for the most noble of beings self knowledge, growth and purification. What I have attempted to open your mind to your mind to, is that to appreciate and understand the impact of this great practice, one does not need to be a magician, a chemist or a spiritual man of any kind. The only pre-condition is a thirst for understanding of what exists around all of us and how it came to be. Paracleus wrote

“Alchemy means: to carry to its end something that has not yet been completed”

Though this quote is broad and open to a plethora of interpretation. It cannot begin to describe the path of the alchemist. It does,infact, enable anybody with a hunger for knowledge to unlock the door, of common misconception, we find ourselves locked behind. It offers a reasoned, logical and diverse approach to an age old art. The repercussions, of which, are still felt to this day and surround us with every step we take. The difference is now you can start to see them more clearly.

Interview with Drinks Writer Jack Robertiello

1. What is the first alcoholic drink you remember tasting?

Beside beer, it would be either a Manhattan or a Jack Rose, my parent's cocktails. Also the first drinks I ever made.

2. What are your 3 favourite drinks, cocktails or spirits? recipes if you have them?

Well, a Manhattan made with two parts Rittenhouse Rye, 1/2 part each sweet vermouth and the French apertif Figoun (made with figs, angelica and oranges), and four dashes Angostura is my go-to between October and May. Hold the cherry, please.

I admit I am a philistine, but when in the Caribbean, any place I stay must have a professional blender and plenty of ice for whipping up fresh fruit drinks - pineapple, guava, mango, what have you - made with two or three of the local rums.

In the summer, it's whatever is fresh, smashed and shaken with gin and stuff. Here's this week's fave: Cut up 1/2 fully ripe white peach and muddle with 1/4 lime and 2 sprigs fresh tarragon. Add ice, 3 ounces Plymouth gin, 1 ounce Cointreau, 2 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters, 2 dashes Manzanilla sherry.

3. Tell us about a new flavour you have discovered recently?

I'm opposed to the new; I champion the old - such is my lot. For instance, there's a South African brandy based liqueur I like, Van Der Humm, flavored with tangerines, herbs and spices that's quite useful as a sweetener in brown cocktails. In foods, a friend recently brought over a round watermelon we expected to be yellow fleshed. Instead, when we cut it open, it was pale green, very much like a cucumber, perhaps the result of a rogue garden cross. It tasted slightly sweeter than a cuke, but with a watermelon's porous and easily mashed flesh. Great muddled with Hendrick's gin, lime and soda.

4. If you could pass just one thing, on to a bartender what would it be?

Smile you twit! You're working in a field that has never before received such attention and respect. And it may not last, so enjoy! Seriously, I'd be happy to be the person who reminds all the oh so serious contemporary bartenders that mixology isn't everything - great bartenders are hosts above all, and a frowning, sullen one makes for bad company.

5. What does the future hold for yourself and what do you see happening in the future in the industry?

I plan to be part of the first human-finished Scotch whiskey experiment. Look for it in private bottling soon.

The food and beverage industry is one driven by trends and waves; in the U.S. now, for instance, Spanish food and wine is undergoing a surge. In the 1990s, bars and restaurants were making or branding their own beers and ales. Now, those same places put all their beverage energy into cocktails, though not at the highest level, of course. The current cocktail revolution will only be sustained for so long before another beverage trend emerges; the really good bars, superior bartenders and smart businesspeople will remain, but the über-trendy will disappear like the froth on a Ramos Gin Fizz.

6. What has been your biggest satisfaction from working behind in the spirits industry?

I've been on many sides: as a bartender, restaurant manager, writer, editor and consultant. The fact that I am actually working every day tickles me and my accountant endlessly.

7. If you were to have a conversation with a cocktail/spirit, (and presuming it could talk back to you and tell you its past). Which cocktail/spirit would it be and why?

We talked, endlessly, the Sidecar and I. But we never worked it out.

8. What influences your drinks from outside the industry (i.e. art, fashion)?

I'm not a fanatic locavore, but I try to avoid fruits and vegetables out of the season. It's not because I'm guilty about my carbon footprint; it's because, after tasting a berry picked an hour before, one allowed to become slightly over-ripe and a bit aromatically funky, I can't imagine eating those things grown to be shipped, rather than eaten. That means strawberries for six weeks in the spring, and in good seasons many drink and infusion experiments. Ditto tomatoes in late summer, melon in midsummer, etc. Otherwise, it's my liver's ceaseless demands for nurturing that influences me. That, and the pink elephant in the yard.

9. If you where to break a writers/journalist golden rule what would it be?

I've done it; I burned a source, though not directly nor on purpose, through poorly obscuring her identity in a story. I don't know if she suffered any career damage from it, since she never took my calls again.

10. Outside of flavour and the craft of the cocktail what in your opinion effects the appreciation of a drinks the most?

Company. Atmosphere. Setting. A Margarita on a distillery patio in Jalisco; a wee dram at the end of the day outside the pub in Islay; some Sazeracs with friends standing at the bar at Tujaques.

11. If you where to champion a drink, cocktail or spirit which would it be?

Mon bon ami Calvados. Fine on its own, Calvados deserves an honored place as a cocktail ingredient. Get on it, Tony!

ph meters by Steffi Holt

Most of us will have heard the term pH, and maybe some of us know that it relates to acidity, but fewer of us will have thought about how this can affect the flavour of a drink we are making.
So how does pH work? Explained simply, it is the concentration of Hydrogen (H+) ions within a solution compared to pure water (H2O). At room temperature, some water molecules split into their ionic (charged) components – H+ (positively charged) and OH- (Oxygen joined to a Hydrogen with an overall negative charge).
Ionic charges work in the same way as magnets and opposites attract, so the amount of molecules that this happens to in pure water is relatively low – only 1 in 555million water molecules stays separated in this way, and as there is nothing else in the solution for the ions to bind to, the number of H+ equals the number of OH-. This gives pure water a pH of 7, and other solutions are compared to this. When the water is impure (has things mixed into it) the ionic balance is disrupted – either the OH- or the H+’s will bind to the molecules within the solution and leave an excess of the other. Due to the nature of the calculation giving us pH, as the concentration of H+ increases, the pH decreases, so the more acidic a solution, the lower the pH.
How can we as bartenders use this knowledge to improve our drinks? One of the main features of a good drink is balance – bartenders must learn to appreciate balance in drinks so that even if a drink is not to their liking, it can be recommended to someone else who may like it. Acidity and therefore pH play an important role in the balance of drinks.
We can easily measure pH of drinks & ingredients using a pH meter. They are available in versions that are portable, small, waterproof & very cheap, so the average bar can easily use them for many things. For example – citrus juices vary with seasons & countries of origin. This can make drinks too sour/sweet depending on your source. It is simple to test the juice before use (as long as you don’t squeeze as you go!) in order to compensate for any variety in pH & ensure drinks standards are maintained.
Below is a table showing some average pHs…