In the cocktail world, nothing is more clichéd than the idea of better drinking through science. This concept boosted the fortunes of smoking guns, carbon dioxide canisters for foam and liquid nitrogen vessels, albeit briefly, since most new gadgets are abandoned once the novelty wears off. As such, we can be forgiven for being skeptical about the promise of sous vide ingredients in cocktails. But, unlike other fads, the sous vide – a "water oven" that slowly cooks vacuum-sealed food items in low-temperature water – looks like it's got legs.
To understand why, all you have to do is head to Toronto's Maple Leaf Tavern and order up the banana daiquiri, a light, robust and fresh-tasting drink with natural banana flavour, but none of that thick pulp that gets in the way of the booze. Its remarkable, delicate structure and tart flavours all comes down to sous vide, and the discovery that a low-temperature cook is perfect for fruit-alcohol infusions – in this case, bananas into Cuban rum.
"I like to take familiar drinks, especially those that are often made badly, and rework them using better ingredients and techniques and show that they can actually be delicious when made well through an analytical approach," says Naren Young, the New York-based cocktail consultant who designed the Maple Leaf Tavern's bar program. "The banana daiquiri seemed like perfect fodder for this, since it's hard to extract a banana flavour that doesn't taste synthetic."
Others have figured out this secret method, too. The sous vide approach is so good, in fact, that it might be single-handedly responsible for rescuing the fruit-flavoured daiquiri (and margarita) from the trash heap of cocktails. The Vancouver Club has a seasonally available pared-down strawberry daiquiri made with fresh berries; the Open Windows cocktail at Toronto's El Rey is essentially a pineapple margarita; and the rooftop bar at the Beverley Hotel, also in Toronto, offers up a spicy strawberry margarita – all of which are clean and lean, in contrast to the thick, frozen slushies of days gone by. All this is made possible by the sous vide's low-temperature infusion technology, which actually results in a more nuanced flavour profile.
"I find that when you cook stuff as a syrup on the stove, these cooked flavours come out that I don't like," says Shaun Layton, who recently designed the menu at Juniper, Vancouver's gin-centric cocktail hotspot. "That stems from the high temperatures, but if you do it at a low temperature, you just get a concentrated fresh flavour that pops."
Since Juniper isn't a daiquiri or margarita joint, Layton applied the sous vide technique to the Wimbledon, a drink that he describes as a cross between a gin and tonic and a Pimm's Cup. "We were using an elderflower syrup but I wanted something a bit more punchy, and we had this great, local, elderflower on hand," he says, "So I put it in the sous vide bag with sugar, water and vodka and it ended up being a really beautiful texture and super fragrant, which we called SL-derflower and used in the Wimbledon."
All of these factors make it nearly certain that sous vide will become a permanent addition to cocktail bars. Will it trickle down to become the next essential home bar tool, though? Layton thinks that, even though they're coming down in price (home systems range from about $200 to $350), sous vide devices are not ideal for home bartending.
"You'd have to drink a lot of elderflower to make it worth it," says Layton, who points out that many sous vide infusions lose their bold flavours over time. "But some things are just better left to other people, you know? You could make anything at home, I guess. But do you really want to?"
Fair enough, especially now that great fruit daiquiris and margaritas are popping up on just about every great cocktail bar menu already.
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