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Making Cocktails with “Maximum Flavor”

Writer Kevin Liu attended the Maximum Flavor event in Richmond, VA. Here he reports on the food and drink amplified with a touch of science.

Crafting "Maximum Flavor" into Food and Cocktails at Heritage Restaurant, Richmond, VA

Kevin Liu likes to drink science and study cocktails. Wait, that's backward. He's the author of Craft Cocktails at Home and his writing has also appeared on Serious Eats, The SweetHome, and Popular Science.

I recently had the chance to attend a special dinner put on as a collaboration between Chef Joe Sparatta of Heritage Restaurant and Alex Talbot, author of the just-released Maximum Flavor.

Talbot is best known for the Ideas in Food, the innovative culinary blog he runs with wife Aki Kamozawa. The headline of the evening might have been the food, but I paid careful attention to the cocktails as well. Bar manager and owner Mattias Hagglund teamed up with Thomas "T" Leggett of The Roosevelt to offer up six custom drinks designed to suit any palette and to perfectly complement the five courses of the dinner.

Leggett and Hagglund, respectively

Whereas the trend in modernist cooking tends toward fantastic presentations and unexpected textures, the Ideas in Food team focuses on creating intense and memorable flavors. An otherwise traditional-looking ramen dish with seared octopus featured an intense broth flavored with—of all things—pepperoni. Yet somehow the flavors blended harmoniously, without any hint of forced "fusion" in the presentation.

Likewise, tiny tender gnocchi sardi accompanied a dish of braised lamb shoulder. The dish would have been worthy of fine dining regardless of how it was prepared. But, these gnocchi were remarkable for another reason—they were made completely gluten-free. To achieve the springy light texture, Talbot uses a multi-ingredient custom flour blend he designed himself. But does the menu boast of this incredible detail? No, the diner just knows that dinner was delicious.

It seemed Hagglund and Leggett took a page from Talbot's book for their cocktails (no, not literally). The drinks were advertised and served simply, but small touches amplified flavor.

Clockwise from top left: fall ol'fashion, rum swiss meringue, pear shrub, Alabama 'slamma'

The Fall Cobbler paired savory sherry with apple cider and housemade toasted allspice liqueur. All three are strong ingredients, yet a light touch and plenty of crushed ice kept the flavors from becoming overwhelming.

The Fall Ol'fashion became my instant favorite. Here, the smoked bourbon (smoked with applewood chips while resting over an ice bath for 14-15 minutes) were cut by a toasted cinnamon tincture (vacuum-infused for one week) and intensified with bourbon barrel-aged Maple Syrup.

Leggett's take on an Alabamma 'Slamma' dressed up the notorious party shot with two types of bitters that added a pleasant and addictive astringency. Carefully-crafted orange foam (orange juice and egg whites) offset the bitterness with a playful creaminess.

The Rum Swiss Meringue also featured egg whites, this time supported in both texture and flavor by a healthy dose of buttermilk. Rather than becoming overly thick, the drink maintained a light consistency while supporting a generous rum-incensed froth on top.

And finally, for the teetotalers, a Pear Shrub (house-juiced bosc pears, apple cider vinegar) preserved enough of the vinegar's bite that I hardly noticed the absence of alcohol.

What's really mind-blowing about Alex and Aki's work isn't the fact that they consistently come up with new techniques and previously untapped flavors. It's that fact that when you eat their food, you know you're barely scratching the surface of their talent. Take a glance at their blog (updated every day for the last 9 years) and you begin to appreciate the underwater iceberg of ideas and experiments that never get published.

Likewise, sipping the cocktails last Monday night made me feel like I was peering through a barely-cracked door of new ideas and techniques that combined seasonal interpretations of old classics with the latest science-backed techniques. Sure, the drinks of the evening incorporated vacuum infusion and foams, but these "modernist" tricks never took the spotlight from the freshness of the ingredients or the balance of spirits.

So whether or not you're a fan of "molecular" or modernist movements in cuisine and cocktails, one thing's for certain: maximum flavor is here to stay.

Camper's Book: Tonic Water AKA G&T WTF is now available for sale.

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