I find carbonated drinks to be mysteriously satisfying.
I know I’m not alone on this. It’s just a tingly feeling, a strange pleasure completely isolated from the thinking part of the brain, and yet so many of us find it so pleasant. It’s the kind of dumb sensory stuff that makes me feel like a gorilla, but regardless: there’s nothing quite like it.
One of the better trends in the craft cocktail world over the last couple years has been applying that sensation to our drinks. Not just adding soda water or sparkling wine to cocktails (as we have been since forever) but actually carbonating the cocktails themselves. The basic idea is instead of relying on a splash of carbonated liquid for your bubbles, use flat liquid and then carbonate the whole thing in whatever way you can. It works particularly well with cocktails that are designed for carbonation. So while a carbonated Negroni (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin) is weird and semi-unpleasant, a carbonated Americano (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Soda Water) is glorious.
There are two ways to carbonate. We’ll call them the easy way and the hard way.
The Easy Way: As far as I know, this is a technique yet again pioneered (or, at least popularized) by Jeffrey Morganthaler, and is referred to in the home-brew business as “force carbonation.” You make your batch of cocktail, get it as cold as possible, somehow get your hands on CO2 (either a large tank or single-use cartridge), and hit the liquid with the gas in a pressurized environment. This is SodaStream, Soda Siphons, anything by iSi, and pretty much all DIY carbonation methods. It’s clean and simple, and produces larger-type bubbles. From there, either serve it, or bottle it for later (picture, right).
The Hard Way: Fermentation. Yeast + sugar = alcohol, heat, and CO2. When you’re done fermenting (in other words, when the yeast has eaten all the sugar it can), you’re left with low-alcohol mixture (beer, wine, etc), which, if you did it under pressure, is also carbonated. If not, the bubbles escaped to air, so you can add a small amount of what’s called “priming sugar” before bottling, and the yeast will finish off this sugar in the bottle, creating the carbonation you experience when you open it. This is called “bottle-conditioning” or “secondary fermentation.” The best beers and all Champagne producers do this, giving them their very small, delicate bubbles. (Aside: the most knowledgeable and passionate Bubble Connoisseur I know, Ms. Victoria Young, insists on such small bubbles.)
Now: me, you, or anyone with a soda siphon can do technique #1. I did a couple for the cocktail menu at Gang Kitchen. Don’t get me wrong: it’s hard to come up with a good carbonated cocktail recipe, as CO2 turns into carbonic acid (C2HO3) when induced into a solution, which fucks up the balance of whatever you’re trying to do. But as a technique, force carbonation is fairly easy.
As for technique #2, Champagne and beer are tricky enough, but it must be mind-bendingly difficult to bottle ferment a cocktail and do it in a way that’s not gross. Fermentation is primal. It muddies the waters, very unlike the clean measurements and individual ingredients we cocktail people are used to. Yeast affects flavor and final character dramatically, and a little carbonic acid is the least of your concerns. If you use the wrong kind of yeast, it’ll be disgusting. If you add your spirit at the wrong time, nothing will happen at all. If you miscalculate the sugar levels even a little, your bottles will literally explode.
It’s hard. And Jeff Josenhans, at the Grant Grill, has managed to do it.
Sadly I don’t have a recipe for you. I imagine, as a technical innovation, that’s under lock and key.
The cocktail is called “La Grenade,” which I wish was a reference to that exploding bottle business but is actually the French word for “pomegranate” (the same root as the pomegranate syrup Grenadine, if you were ever wondering). Initially the first impression is one of wine. The delicate carbonation combined with the floral element from the hibiscus and the tart juiciness of the pomegranate evoke a Lambrusco. The cognac is barely detectable, coming though as a kind of stickiness on the finish. The pepper adds a bit of spice, and the bay leaf just kind of hangs out.
If I’ve got my critical pants on, I’ll say I can’t help but feel like it might want for a little acid to help with that slightly thick finish. I notice that neither this nor the Mule (his other Cocktail Sur Lie, as he calls them, French for “on the lees” a.k.a. resting on yeast) use any citrus. I wonder if they mess with the fermentation process.
That said, this is delicious, something I would absolutely order again. As with anything cocktail-related I can’t do, I want to learn how to do this. Thus far, I’ve only learned enough to know how impressive it is that he actually pulled it off. This is a proper achievement. Check it out some time.