30 November 2011

How To Carbonate Cocktails

Personal experience is a valuable thing. I could probably already tell you the answer to “Do bubbles get you drunk quick?” - In my case yes, champagne makes me go wonky, shots however I can put away for hours. Though, that’s no reason to not look into the idea further.

The idea of carbonating a spirit is something I can’t say I have seen being used behind bars too much. Maybe the process seems overly complex or not practical for service. Maybe the idea just doesn’t appeal to people. However I sent a mail to Kevin Liu over at Why Cook asking if he had any info on the matter……… his response and a few additions from myself are below.

Giles asked me a few weeks ago what I thought about carbonating hard liquor. I’d heard of the technique previously via the Cooking Issues Radio Show, but I hadn’t played with it and didn’t really understand why anyone would want to try it. After messing around for a few hours this past weekend, I can definitively pronounce: carbonating liquor is easy and definitely worth doing.

Some Science

First, it’s worth understanding some things about carbonation.

- It seems to get you drunk faster. Something about the carbon dioxide increases ABV more rapidly than if you drank vodka alone. This only happens in some people, however.

- When you carbonate something, you are literally dissolving the gas CO2 in a liquid. That CO2 has no reason to come out of solution unless it’s disturbed or if there happens to be a nucleation site available.

- On that note, although people tend to describe a “tingly” sensation related to carbonated beverages, in fact it’s more likely we are able to taste the CO2 even if it stays in solution. Scientists think we are somehow detecting the carbonic acid that CO2 forms when it’s dissolved in water, probably with the same taste buds that are responsible for sourness.

- Don’t believe me? It turns out you can taste carbon dioxide even in a pressure chamber, when the bumbles can’t come out.

- When CO2 does come out of solution, it seems to physically irritate our taste buds, so spicy things may taste spicier. At least one study I dug up, however, seems to indicate that
pretreating the tongue with capsaicin actually decreases sensation of carbonation. Weird.

- Well, maybe not that weird. Another study showed that capsaicin and carbonated water both create sensations of burning, stinging, and tingling, though capsaicin was much stronger than carbonated water. So what was probably going on in the first study was that the capsaicin was so strong, carbonated water seemed weak in comparison. Mmm, weaksauce.

What does all this mean? We’ve written before about how alcohol may trigger nerves that are also set off by capsaicin. It seems like we must enjoy some facet of the irritation we get from each of these ingredients or some combination of all of them. I’d love to know the why’s and how’s of all this, but in the meantime, it’s time to do some observational experiments…

How to Carbonate Vodka

Carbonating hard alcohol is very easy. The basic rules, as dictated by Dave Arnold are:

- get the alcohol cold
- clarify as much as possible
- remove air
- as many rounds of carbonation as possible.

You see, ethanol doesn’t dissolve CO2 as effectively as water does, so the colder the product, the better. Clarification removes potential nucleation sites. With nicely distilled vodka, which is what I used, clarification isn’t an issue. Removing air helps to prevent foaming and can be done either by letting the product sit or by sucking a vacuum on it.

The two easiest ways to carbonate at home are either using an ISI cream whipper with CO2 canisters or a modified SodaStream home carbonation system. This is pretty simple, so here are the pictures showing you how to do it.

I used silicone aquarium tubing I had lying around after building an immersion circulator. The tubing is required in order to carbonate a small amount of product (which, in the case of vodka, probably makes sense). It’s also smart to use less product if you’re concerned with foaming, for example if you’re trying to carbonate white wine.

Here are a few lessons learned:

- Toss the vodka in the freezer for a while. I got mine down to 20F.
- It will take a lot longer to carbonate such a small amount of liquid than with a full bottle. Be prepared to use a lot of gas.
- A weird cloud develops above the vodka. It’s cool.
- Use immediately if possible; the gas doesn’t stay dissolved very well.

What Should we Use it For?

The vodka tasted sweeter and less alcoholic than I remembered a shot tasting, though one test probably wasn’t enough to draw any conclusions from. The texture was definitely fun, more of a velvety sensation than traditional bubbles like would be found in soda. The potential of this is two-fold. You can either simply add a flavoured liqeur to the spirit and you instantly have a fizzy shot that doesn’t actually require a dilution like soda or lemonade, but also you could simply take a pre flavoured vodka and charge it, creating a whole new dimension to the drink.

The most obvious application I can think of for this technique would be traditional highballs served up, without the seltzer water component. Imagine a gin and tonic that used only gin, lime, and quinine. What a kick in the pants that would be. This would also be a convenient way to present service. For example, if you wanted to premix and prechill a drink, then carbonate a whole bottle of it and pour straight from the bottle. The possibilities are endless, all you’d need is empy bottles with a screw cap and ideas on what to fill them with. The idea of being able to create your own fizzy soft drinks, or long fizzy cocktails may indeed take a bit of prep but the results are bespoke and individual to your own tastes/bar

For instance - still water, sugar, and lemon to create Vodka lemonade, or a long sparkling drink that used charged white wine instead of champagne.

On the topic of which……..how useful would it be to get that fizz back in a bottle of flat champagne or prosecco. Potentially not the best practice but useful for maybe staff drinks or parties at home…..!

What would you do with this technique?

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