Molecular gastronomy: A movement borne of kids who refused to choose between an Easy Bake Oven or a chemistry set. When I first heard about The Aviary in Chicago, I knew that this avant-garde approach to cooking would inevitably find a comfortable niche in the cocktail world.
At The Aviary, the Old Fashioned comes in the rocks, which is not a typo — the cocktail is injected into hollow ice spheres, which guests crack into their glass. Order a Painkiller and you'll get a glass of dehydrated and powdered fruits, and a carafe containing rum, coconut water and coconut milk. Pour the carafe contents into the glass and stir, creating an alcoholic pudding that you eat with a spoon!
In February, Sarasota's Michael's on East debuted cocktails featuring "caviar beads" — spherified juices with flavors such as passion fruit, black currant, strawberry and yuzu — which made me wonder: Was molecular mixology making its way into our local scene?
I set out to find evidence of this trend in other bay area bars and ended up at Edison Food + Drink Lab, a South Tampa restaurant eager to play with its food, as well as its drinks. Wine is served in Erlenmeyer flasks, and the cocktail list is built around flavor profiles: savory, spicy, sour.
I ordered the Shirt Soaker, a mezcal cocktail that drinks like a meal because of the inclusion of muddled yellow heirloom tomato, basil and smoked sea salt. It was a great cooler, but nothing touched the cool factor of the Batido con Ron y Guayaba, a mix of Scarlet Ibis and Ron Matusalem Platino rums, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram liqueur, coconut and guava that's infused with liquid nitrogen before serving, resulting in what looks and drinks like deliciously alcoholic pink yogurt.
A few blocks away is Mise en Place, where I selected the Quemar, a margarita relative made with tequila, serrano pepper-infused agave syrup, cilantro and cucumber. The catch? Instead of ice cubes, the Quemar comes with deep green cubes made entirely from frozen fresh cucumber juice, slowly melting and releasing cucumber essence into the drink over time.
Another drink, Mr. Butterworth's After Work Old Fashioned, features bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup and a single, large ice cube infused with maple smoke. As the cube melts, intense smoke and maple flavors are released into the drink. Take my advice and eat the ice cube at the end.
Clearwater's Cafe Ponte hits a similar note with its Smoked Apple Manhattan: Woodford Reserve and sweet vermouth, with a maraschino cherry embedded in a smoke essence-infused ice cube made of green apple juice. The result is a drink that stays cold until the very end, and any dilution that occurs is actually welcome, as it introduces apple, smoke and cherry flavors into the drink.
Finally, I stopped by SideBern's, where I tried a culinary-influenced take on the classic whiskey sour. The Grilled Sour features Bulleit Bourbon, muddled peach and … "grilled lemon juice?" Yep, a lemon half is grilled and plopped right into the drink, adding a savory, smoky touch to the fresh, fruity cocktail. The cocktail menu changes seasonally, so get this one while it lasts.
I don't think the bay area is ready to give The Aviary a run for its money just yet, but these cocktails are evidence that we have plenty of local talent willing to push the envelope of what a cocktail can be. Let's get to experimenting!
What's the craziest cocktail you've had in Tampa Bay? Tell us at email@example.com, or tweet us at @tbtnewspaper with the hashtag #tampabaydrinks.