Seated at 69 Colebrooke Row, his watering hole in north London otherwise known as "the bar with no name", Tony Conigliaro watches closely as a woman at a nearby table picks up the prairie oyster drink that has just been served to her.
Eyeing the white seashell filled with what appears to be an egg yolk floating on its pearly surface, she hesitates briefly before slurping it down in one gulp. Within seconds, her eyes widen in surprise as she savours a parade of flavours: horseradish vodka, a dash of pepper sauce, a sprinkling of shallots and a burst of gelatinous cherry tomato. "That is the most amazing thing ever," she says to her friends, giggling.
"I just love to see people's reactions when they experience it for the first time," Conigliaro says. "This is all about making beautiful things from pure ingredients, but mostly about creating pleasure."
Conigliaro, 42, and one of the world's most notable mixologists, is now sharing those "pleasures" in T he Cocktail Lab: Unravelling the Mysteries of Flavour and Aroma in Drink, With Recipes.
The book, published by Ten Speed Press, is designed to appeal both to industry professionals able to whip up a concept drink such as cosmo popcorn (a liquid nitrogen recipe with a safety warning included), as well as home-bar enthusiasts wanting to serve their guests a simple buck's fizz (one part fresh orange juice and four parts champagne).
But for Conigliaro's fellow cocktail scientists, well versed in working with everything from xanthan gum (a thickening agent) and hydrosols (water-based essences) to tinctures (concentrated small volumes of flavour), his book is a long-awaited treatise, the unlocking of original recipes created by one of the masterminds of their wet-bar world.
"Tony is a legend and one of the most interesting, innovative bartenders out there," says Ann Tuennerman, founder and executive director of Tales of the Cocktail, the industry's premier trade event.
"Everyone is excited when he puts down what he does on paper. He lives in his own world and has these ideas and combinations he puts together that stem from his unique intelligence and artistry. It is really impossible to compare him to anyone else."
Concocting one of his signature cocktails is a process that requires a sophisticated palate and patience.
It is not abnormal for a recipe to take him up to two years to release: the ingredients must be replicable to his standards before the drink goes to any of his three London locations.
"I like to tell a story through flavours and by creating bespoke ingredients," he says, describing how he reinvented the prairie oyster, a concoction Sally Bowles, Liza Minnelli's character in the film Cabaret, consumed every morning.
Another drink, the rose, came from a perfume project in which Conigliaro wanted to "recreate the experience of sipping a glass of champagne while walking in an English summer garden". The secret is a sugar cube containing rose essence; the cube reacts with the champagne bubbles, propelling the aroma through the cocktail.
Endless shelves at the Drink Factory house vintage spirits and glassware, and hundreds of bizarre ingredients, like a beaver aquavit from northern Sweden, oak moss, nettles, Japanese shiso mint leaves and even bee pollen from Transylvania.
The machinery is mind-boggling, and it is explained in his book, for those interested in barware beyond a shot glass or a martini shaker.
There is a centrifuge; a rotavapor, for distilling; an induction heater; a cold smoker; a dehydrator; and a thermomix, the ultimate blender, among other pieces of equipment, all of which Conigliaro uses to draw moisture, flavours, aromas, fibres and even smoky notes out of ingredients.
Conigliaro went to art school and fell into the drinks trade because he was trying to finance his studio work by bartending. "I am an artist and a romantic, but not a scientist," he says.
The New York Times