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Madcap Molecular Cocktails From The Aviary

The Aviary/Christian Seel

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas have a record of ignoring the norm when it comes to their restaurants. So it's no surprise that like Alinea, the three star Michelin-rated restaurant that fulfills all a mad scientist’s culinary fantasies, and the newly opened Next, The Aviary, which opened at 955 W. Fulton Market in Chicago with lines down the block, marks some significant changes to the cocktail lounge template.

First off, there's no bar or bartenders. It seems almost wrong to have a place where the focus is on the drinks without a friendly staffer with jigger in hand mixing up magic behind a counter fronted by stools filled by thirsty patrons. It's like some obscure societal more is being violated. But given the owners' track record, you get the feeling it might just be ok.

Second, at most lounges the focus is on the mood and the atmosphere – creating an environment conducive to seeing and being seen without teetering over the edge into club territory. Here, the focus is on the drinks.

And what a focus it is.

Craig Schoettler is the Executive Chef/Mixologist at The Aviary, though his title is a matter of no small debate. According to him, the primary difference between The Aviary and most lounges is where they want to place people's attention.

“We're trying to make an experience based on what’s inside the glass,” said Schoettler. “We're creating aromas, sights, even sounds. The idea is to make drinking a cocktail a more participatory act. It may sound strange, but we want to engage our guests in their drinks and make them have more of a vested interest in them. The show is no longer at the bar – it's at your table.”

What this means is that the team at The Aviary is using the same concepts and approach they do at Alinea – the principles of molecular gastronomy - to play with textures, flavors, temperatures and presentations of food in unexpected ways. But now it’s cocktails that are the canvas.

From the 80-gallon reverse osmosis water tank to the custom built kitchen and even the way the cocktails are crafted, the team redesigned drinking from the ground up. Having customized everything from the tools used to make the drinks to the vessels they're served in, the group is clearly intent on running cocktail service in a way few, if any, ever have. In fact, instead of bartenders, the chefs are mixing up the drinks themselves.

“The division of labor in a kitchen setting makes more sense,” says co-owner Nick Kokonas. “After watching the Alinea kitchen in action it became obvious that a drink-making kitchen should operate in the same fashion. You wouldn't have an Italian restaurant where one cook made the orders for each table regardless of what they were, it gets split between several cooks who each specialize in those plates for the night. Same thing in our drink kitchen.”

This philosophy doesn't just extend to who makes the cocktails, but how they're made. At most bars and lounges, drinks are mixed to order. While that holds true with the classics served here, like Daiquiris, Sidecars and Sazeracs, the new style cocktails are treated a bit differently. Just as with a complex dish in a restaurant, anything that can be batched without compromising the end product is. So mixtures of simple syrup, gin and water are bagged and dropped into an immersion circulator to be kept at the proper temperature for use. Delicate orbs of ice encasing the lounge's take on an Old Fashioned wait around to be dropped (gently) into a lowball glass. It's an approach that makes sense – especially given the push to have the show happen at the table rather than the non-existent bar.

“We don’t use the strange techniques for the sake of them,” says Schoettler. There’s a reason for all of it. The tastes are all classics, with a twist. People will recognize them all, but they're different forms, textures, and presentations that really get people involved in the drinks.”

The drinks, of course, could have easily teetered over the edge into gimmick territory, but the techniques and twists on the traditional really do elevate the drinks into something new and interesting. Many of them give the drinker some amount of control over the preparation or flavors in their drink, whether through the ability to add aromatics and other ingredients or getting it ready to drink – such as cracking open that ice egg to get at the delicious liquor inside. Oddly enough, the names for most of the cocktails are quite understated, letting the presentation and taste do the talking. Chef Craig Schoettler walked us through some of the more interesting preparations just before opening weekend. Here are a few of the more notable ones.

Rooibos – Like a mad scientist's hot toddy, the Rooibos is a mix of Rooibos tea, lemon peel, orange peel, almond, vanilla, lemon verbena, mint, saffron, lavender, peppercorn, cardamom, Hendrick’s gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, citric acid, simple syrup, and water. A vac pot, which has an upper and a lower chamber, is placed at the table with dry ingredients in the top chamber and wet in the bottom. Because playing with fire at a table full of booze has to be the most dangerously fun idea ever, a small gas burner is placed under the lower chamber to bring it to a boil. Once boiling, it forms a vacuum, drawing the liquid into the top chamber, and is flash infused, turning a cheery orange and filling the air with citrus and aromatics. After a quick stir with a cinnamon stick the burner is turned off, the liquid drops back into the pot and the cocktail gets poured. It's redolent of citrus, with a solid herbal punch from the gin and a nice subtle spice underlying the whole thing. It's the perfect antidote for chilly spring evenings and as it cools it gets an almost old school orange candy flavor. Plus, it's far more fun to watch than anyone could expect, especially under dim lounge lighting.

In The Rocks – At its heart, it's an old fashioned. A classic by any measure. Combining 10-year Eagle Rare Bourbon, demerera syrup, Angostura bitters, and a little water it's slightly spicier than the norm, but it's instantly recognizable. The thrill is in the presentation. The drink shows up the table encased in an orb of ice. Alongside it is a rubber band with a metal weight in the center, which you stretch across your thumb and index finger and snap against the orb. It breaks open in an impressive dramatic fashion, releasing its contents, and where there was once simply ice, there is now a beautifully mixed drink on the rocks. It's hard to go wrong with interactive dinner theater, after all.

Lemon – It's more than a little jarring when a brown bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag hits the table in a high end cocktail lounge. But when you twist the cap off and hear that audible hiss it's hard not to grin, especially when the first wallop of sweet lemon hits noses around the table. A twist on the Tom Collins, the Lemon is sunshine in a bottle and seems a lock to stay on the menu when The Aviary shakes things up for summer. Combining Heyman’s old tom gin, simple syrup, and water it is force-carbonated with lemon juice and tastes sweet and sour with a bracing herbal undertone. It's the most sophisticated hard lemonade anyone has ever conjured up.

Banana – Here's where things start getting weird. Who knew white dog whiskey, moonshine by any other name, and bananas went so well together? Chef Schoettler noticed bananas flavors embedded in the New Make Corn whiskey that he was tasting, though it's hard to see how he'd notice it behind the heat from the alcohol in the 126 proof spirit. Naturally, he thought to put bananas and water through a still to make distilled banana water and combine it with the whiskey, simple syrup and lemon. The water and smooth banana tames the moonshine amazingly well and the lemon brings the drink together. It's luminous and clear in the glass, so few would expect the flavors they'll get hit with. It turns white dog into something special. And lets be honest, it really takes a wonderfully twisted mind to mix whiskey and bananas.

Popcorn – This is a drink made from popcorn puree. If you needed any additional evidence that there's some bizarre alchemy going on within The Aviary's walls, those eight words should provide it. Most people pop corn and add butter and salt, then plop down on the couch with a movie. Here, they think a bit differently. Sure, they pop the popcorn, but then they add it to a butter stock, bring the mixture to a boil and steep it for 25 minutes. After straining it and blending it, the team adds simple syrup, salt, and crème freche, then passes it through another sieve. The puree alone is delicious. With the addition of Appleton 12-year rum it tastes like a grown-up buttered popcorn jelly bean. It's sweet and savory and buttery, with a tiny hint of cinnamon grated over top and a creamy texture you'd never expect when downing ground up popcorn. You know, assuming you ever expected to drink popcorn.

In the end though, plenty will ask if The Aviary expects to improve on cocktails. The impressive thing is that it doesn't seem like that's what anyone involved set out to do. There's no ego or arrogance evident, just a sense of fun and a desire to try something new.

“We’re not going to make the classics obsolete,” said Schoettler. “It’s just a different approach. We're striving for balance in every cocktail, the same as any other bar or lounge. We're just using different techniques to get there. And we hope people will enjoy it as much as we do.”

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