What Is Molecular Mixology?

Where Science and Cocktails Meet

Blue Cocktail
Getty Images/AFROG DESIGN UNIT

Molecular mixology is the practice of mixing drinks using science to manipulate ingredients on the molecular level. It was inspired by molecular gastronomy (a phrase coined around 1988), which employs similar techniques with food. In both food and drinks, the purpose is to manipulate states of matter to create new flavors, mouthfeels, textures, and visuals that enhance the experience.

What Is Molecular Mixology?

The practice of molecular mixology was widespread in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It was during a boom in the modern cocktail scene when bartenders were not only reviving many forgotten classic cocktails but also reimagining favorite drinks. At the time, there was a focus on spectacular effects in the cocktail world, and molecular mixology fit right in.

Popular techniques of molecular mixology include the use of foams, liquid nitrogen, gels, mists, heat, solidifying liquids, and much more. Many bartenders and establishments throughout the world featured or specialized in molecular mixology, just as restaurants specialized in molecular gastronomy.

Often touted as somewhat gimmicky, it could, with the absence of discretion, be overwhelming for some drinkers. Since the early 2010s, it has mostly fallen out of favor. Bartenders and drinkers left the spectacle behind in pursuit of refined taste and more straightforward drinks with a sophisticated balance of flavor. Some still pursue it, though it's largely viewed as a fad that may one day see another revival.

Ingredients and Techniques

At the heart of molecular mixology are a bunch of processes and ingredients that sound like they belong in a science lab rather than a bar. For example, calcium lactate and sodium alginate are used to make edible cocktail spheres using a process called spherification. Molecular mojito spheres are one popular example, and they're essentially a geeky take on jello shots.

Another common process is emulsification, which uses an emulsifier to bind two liquids that don't usually mix, such as fats. Cocktails may also feature suspension, in which an ingredient like xantham gum thickens a liquid so it will suspend within another liquid. Nitrous oxide canisters were also quite popular and employed to create luscious flavored foams on top of cocktails.

In a more straightforward approach, liquid nitrogen or dry ice creates ice-cold drinks that smoke. Great care needs to be taken with these techniques because ingredients at such extreme colds can burn a drinker's throat and internal organs, and no one should consume dry ice.

Among the ingredients applied in molecular mixology are calcium chloride, gum acacia, xantham gum, soy lecithin, gelatin, and other gelling agents like agar-agar. Some of these are somewhat common ingredients used to adapt standard recipes for specialized diets, including gluten-free baked goods and vegan dishes.

Get Started

It doesn't require a science degree to get started with molecular mixology. You do, however, need to proceed with caution and do adequate research on the safety of certain ingredients, especially if they're not typically used in food and drinks. Also, make sure that any unknown ingredients are food-grade as some versions are not intended for consumption.

On a basic level, you can freeze a cocktail into a large ice cube or ball so the drink is formed as it melts in your glass. A similar technique uses a syringe to inject a cocktail into a semi-solid piece of ice. With these, you will have to find a balance between the alcohol content and its freezing point. It's possible with a high concentration of mixers and a long enough freezing time. A deep freezer reaches lower temperatures than a refrigerator's freezer, and that helps as well.

You can also play with advanced layering and combining ingredients with extreme densities to create cool in-glass science experiment-like effects. A simple example of this concept is found in the jellyfish cocktail with cream swirling around in a blue sea. Some combinations, however, will not work. The cement mixer is a retro shot that plays up science-gone-wrong when Irish cream and lime juice are combined.

Another option is to explore archives of recipes. At the height of the molecular mixology craze, Forbes captured a number of impressive cocktails that bartenders created in "Do-It-Yourself Chemical Cocktails." One fun option from that collection that anyone can do involves a mister filled with high-proof rum and bitters. It's sprayed to flame cherries and caramelize the sugar they're coated in. The Small Screen Network was a good source for molecular mixology as well, and many of the videos are archived on YouTube. One of particular interest showcases Robert Hess and Jamie Boudreau making cocktail caviar for the aviation cocktail.

There are also a few molecular mixology kits available at online retailers. From companies like Molecul-R, these can be a fun and safe way to play with some of the basic theories without making a significant investment in special equipment.