The caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, is about as simple as they come: sugarcane spirit, lime, sugar. But simple is not how they do it at Bar Centro at The Bazaar in Beverly Hills.
The ingredients, mixed each morning and left to steep, are wheeled tableside on one of three custom carts rigged with an insulated pitcher of minus-196-degree liquid nitrogen. Into a bowl goes the caipirinha, followed by a stream of cryogenic liquid, which freezes the drink instantly into a gelato-like slush. The nitrogen boils away on contact, billowing into a cloud that cascades downward and wafts across the floor like something out of a 1970s rock show.
"It is spectacular," says Lucas Paya, beverage director of ThinkFoodGroup, the management company of José Andrés, a Spanish-born culinary star who operates Bar Centro and a stable of establishments in Washington, D.C., Miami and Las Vegas. "People always get up from their tables and gather around to ask questions."
The Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha, yours for a crisp $20 (U.S.), is not just one of the best cocktails you'll eat with a spoon. It's part of a lofty aesthetic that's raising the bar to new heights. Science-lab wizardry, cask-aged concoctions and house-made herbal tinctures dispensed from perfume atomizers are injecting fresh glamour and baroque opulence into the after-work bracer. The couture cocktail dress finally meets its cocktail.
At the Aviary, a spinoff of Chicago's famed Alinea restaurant, you can't order a simple old-fashioned. What arrives is something called In the Rocks, a tumbler containing an oversized egg of ice filled with an amber "yolk" of bourbon, bitters, sugar and water. Pull back on a rubber band stretched across the glass's rim, let go and the egg implodes, oozing frosty perfection.
Some haute potations upscale the classics with aromatic as well as textural flourish. The Rivkah's Gimlet at Yours Truly in Toronto elevates gin and lime with scents that channel the perfume counter at Holt Renfrew while featuring a garnish that looks curiously like purple caviar. The base is gin, elderflower liqueur, Aperol amaro, cucumber and lime. Nestled at the bottom are "pearls" made with violet-flavoured liqueur that's been coagulated using tapioca in a vacuum-sealed pouch. "You have this last burst of violet flavour that's like a palate cleanser," says Dan Hawkins, Yours Truly's co-owner.
Inspired by the green-market cuisine movement, other exacting barkeeps have begun foraging for wild herbs and squeezing fruits for freshness well before squeezing them into your beverage. David Wolowidnyk, who holds court at West in Vancouver, creates liqueurs and spiked plant extracts (or tinctures) with produce sourced from farmers. "It's kind of like making cookies," he says. "They're always going to be better if they're homemade."
For his Beldi Cocktail, which earned him World's Most Imaginative Bartender honours in a contest sponsored by Bombay Sapphire, Wolowidnyk drew on ingredients gathered while touring Moroccan farms before the global finals in Marrakesh.
The drink combines gin, white vermouth steeped with mint tea and mint leaves, cassia syrup, Moroccan-inspired bitters made by Vancouver caterer Kale & Nori Culinary Arts and a tincture of toasted coriander. The final embellishment: floating lemon peel cut to resemble the Moroccan flag, with a star punched out of the centre. The drink can be had for $13 at West.
When kitchen met bar and got married, the gift registry included more than just scifi hardware and organic produce delivery; the happy couple asked for a trendy backyard smoker. At Barque Smokehouse in Toronto, the Barque 'n' Stormy is rum, housemade apple cider, ginger beer and smoked lime juice, the latter taking a 20-minute detour through the same appliance as the brisket. Barque also makes a simple sounding grapefruit spritzer with lily-gilding opulence: Aperol, white vermouth, grapefruit juice, prosecco and a whisper of peaty Laphroaig Scotch, all served with a stir stick you won't find at IKEA: smoked sugarcane soaked in grappa. "I know, it's insane," says assistant general manager Gerardo Diaz.
Not all the wood in today's drinks goes up in smoke. Fashionable bars have begun mellowing mixtures in tiny, French-oak barrels for weeks to soften and integrate flavours – and presumably to lasso the chardonnay crowd. The trend was pioneered by Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland,Ore. and crossed the border faster than a draft dodger. Keith Trusler at Blue WaterCafe + Raw Bar in Vancouver lays down his negroni for two weeks. Jen Agg at Cocktail Bar in Toronto does an oak-aged Manhattan, adding more velvet to the velvet hammer of cocktails. At $17, it's still cheaper than barrel-aged Lafite.
In Spain, tony bars now serve the gin and tonic with a side of pomp, igniting sprigs of thyme, then letting the fumes coat a wineglass before adding gin and your choice of up to 10 tonics, drizzled down the shaft of a bar spoon to preserve bubbles.
That's still prosaic compared with the Ultimate Gin and Tonic at Bar Centro. Served in a stemless wine glass, it comes with a lime wheel, two juniper berries, an edible flower and a sprig of lemon verbena. But the sensational attraction is a crystal-clear ice sphere the size of a billiard ball. "Sometimes you're not able to enjoy a regular gin and tonic because the ice keeps hitting your nose," Mr. Paya says. "This one spins away from you."
The ice costs more than $1 apiece through a supplier, which almost makes the $18 drink sound like a bargain.