12 February 2009

Alchemy part 2 by Giles Gavin-Cowen

The philosophers stone is often described in beautifully paradoxical terms, it is seemingly the ultimate tautology of the alchemists world. The stone also represents the final hurdle of most ancient, and a few modern, western alchemists. Being able to attain such perfection was undoubtedly at the back of every alchemists mind. Although, within various cultures, the philosophers stone underwent a warping of interpretation, or was called by a different name, it's spirit or essence remained unchanged. I would ask of you, whilst reading this piece not to regard the stone as anything tangible or "real" but rather a concept or idea; as an ideal state which is a driving motivational force behind both practical alchemic process and its inherent philosophy.

The stone was the fuel behind many alchemical processes. It drove forty generations of alchemists to dizzying heights and discoveries, we would be lost without in modern chemistry. Perhaps also notable it has been the inspiration bestselling writers, granted in this respect, it is taken with an air of childishness and a hint of artistic licence.

To past alchemists the stone possessed a spiritual power much like a deity or God. It lay consistently out of arms reach but close enough for it to stimulate the imagination and the senses. It's, most famous, function being the transmutation of base metal into pure gold. Others believed it to be the elixir of life, granting renewed and prolonged health or even immortality of a sort. The immortality they spoke of was one regarding the spirit or metaphysical self as appose to the physical body. If sought after with a purity of mind and soul, if all aspects of the self are balanced, the stone would grant a man all that he wished for, wealth, immortality and no doubt power would soon follow.

There were, however, the few mercenary alchemists who sought the stone for no other purpose than that of self gain and selfish endeavour. These men would find nothing but folly in their search for the stone as it lay far out of the reach of the self obsessed mercenary. Finding the stone was a quest for perfection. Aristoleans held that:
"nature strives always towards perfection, it seems logical to suppose an agent promoting this process should exist"
To religious mystics it was mans imperfect nature striving towards perfections, in essence man striving to be more like their creator, God.

The stone was shrouded in paradox and contradiction. Some more subtle in language described these and "ambivalent ideas". What was beyond doubt was the difficulty in attaining the stone, yet it was always at hand, diffused throughout nature. All it required was a clarity of vision to piece it together. The Gloria Mundi an alchemical work of around 1526 stated:

"The stone is familiar to all men, both young and old, is found in the country, in the village, in the town, in all things created by God; yet it is despised by all. Rich and poor handle I everyday. It is cast into the street by servant maids. Children play with it. Yet no one prizes it, though, next to the human soul, it is the most beautiful and the most precious thing on earth, and has the power to pull down kings and princes. Nevertheless, it is esteemed the vilest and meanest of earthly things"

It is obvious that the stone was perhaps etched in the philosophies and religious aspects of the alchemists work, than it was a realistic goal that any of them would ever reach. It does act as a catalyst for insensitive pieces of science and discovery.

Just as alchemists attempted to harness and harmonise the elements to create perfection, so does the modern bartender attempt to create that elusive melding of ingredients. Which in years to come will still be remember and be considered a "classic"; one of those landmark drinks, many will kick themselves and curse for never having realised its simplicity but still be in awe of its complex, complimentary unity of flavour. Perfect harmony of the elements transmuted into a glass of liquid perfection.

Parallels and comparisons can be found with regard to the "classic" and the "stone". The classic no doubt lies at hand to any person working in a bar, or even a person with a well stocked drinks cabinet at home. The concept remains the same, it is always to hand, whether it be an old mans fridge or a young mans bedside table next to the cigarettes. It cannot be forced and if searched or sought with a tainted mind will only result in its own equivalency.

Perhaps a poignant question is "what is a classic"? By official definition it must have been created after Jerry Thomas' 1887 book and prior the prohibition in America. A modern cocktail is deemed to be one made post prohibition but before 1990. Where these definitions were decided I do not know. Personally I find these to be constrictive and unsatisfactory. Are all these recipes not subject to time, and so in 50 or 100 hundred years they could either be forgotten completely or actually considered to be a classic by a different definition. We should be striving to create new classics, influenced by science, discovery and experimentation. Unburdened, they should be, by the oppressions of the four flavour groups. With this is mind, a classic could be considered as something untouchable. Something more like a concept or ideal. A perfect drink, nothing needs to be added and nothing taken away.

The classic becomes the bartenders "philosophers stone". It is what drives us, gives us the perpetual motion of creating new and innovative ingredients and mixes. The quest for perfection whether it be alchemical, mixological or spiritual is no doubt fraught with both frustration and reward. Often the rewards are not what is expected, however, this does not de-value them in any way. Another question of intrigue could be what actually is perfection? Do we really want to achieve it in any work we undertake? By definition we will never be able to outdo a perfect piece of work. Perhaps creating the perfect "classic" cocktail is that crowning moment for any bartender. He will be renowned for an extension of himself and the group of flavours her created, rather than his actual self.

Another question worthy of asking is does the classic or the work of perfection actually appeal to the many or will it's nature be recognisable only to the enlightened or knowledgeable few? We can be sure that some of the greatest most creative and original pieces of art, or music, or flavour pairing went unnoticed or was shunned for its originality. It is only in later years that it can be recognised for as something so far ahead of it's time that it was misunderstood and thus unappreciated. Is it easier to make something that appeals the to already informed masses or make something that the few who understand it complexities will appreciate but then teach the blind the folly of their ways. Granted the latter is no doubt a harder body of work to tackle but should in its own way offer much greater rewards.

I have tried to ask a few, what I believe to be, poignant questions. In this ever growing and evolving world of bartending, we are constantly pushing the boundaries between science, psychology and drinking experience. Should the cocktail not move with us in a similar manner? I would be glad to invite anyone with an interesting view point on the matter to join the debate and see where we end up.

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