Animated serves

With cocktails increasingly involving scientific geekery, how do bars keep consumers interested in technical drinks? Shay Waterworth polls the lab pioneers


DEXTER HAD DEE DEE, the Brain had Pinky and now Rick has Morty. Top-end bartenders are fast becoming geeky lab technicians familiar with the equipment seen in cartoon laboratories. But they have always been one step ahead of their dipsy, less informed sidekick – the consumer.

The bar and cocktail industry is currently at the highest level of technicality and sophistication in history, with no signs of slowing down. Every time the bar geeks take a step forward, consumers play catch-up. Terminology such as ‘infusion’ and ‘fermented’ is now accepted on cocktail lists globally, but how long will it be until crystallised, homogenised and emulsified become the norm and what do consumers need to understand about the modern science behind their £10 cocktails?

Even high-volume bars are now endowed with the use of infusion tanks, water baths and slow-freezing ice machines. But what about a centrifuge, incubator or vacuum rotary evaporator? Modern bars, such as Scout in London, are pioneering the ‘lab movement’ and raising the bar for followers. Owner and bartender Matt Whiley showed DI around the bar’s basement laboratory – £60,000 worth of secondhand equipment sourced from scientific laboratories. For example, the centrifuge which is now used by Scout to alter and mix liquid ingredients was previously used to separate blood samples.

“One of the guys I get our kit from always asks what it’s for. He thinks we’re nuts,” says Whiley.

Whiley is no stranger to this level of technical drinks making. He is now using his third centrifuge, and during the visit to the lab the bar-scientist on duty was in the process of dehydrating garnishes, checking pressure gauges and doing general sciency things. “Everyone always likes to talk about the rotary evaporators and fancy looking stuff, but for anyone starting out with equipment I would suggest getting a centrifuge first. You can do a lot with them.”

In fact, at the time of writing, Whiley was in the process of making a British rye whisky – using his lab to transform a barrel of rye vodka without waiting for it to age.

However, unless the bar’s audience is actively interested in the processes of the drinks, it would be difficult to throw science jargon on a menu.

“We usually get one or two people on a busy night who are interested in seeing the lab,” adds Whiley. “I have no official lab training – it’s all self-taught, I just liked chemistry at school with the bunsen burners.”


In order to grow people’s interest in technical drinks, exposure is needed. But how can independent bars afford to spend thousands of pounds on equipment to access the next level? Crucible is one answer. The ‘bar makerspace’ in east London provides a platform for bartenders to use some of the latest available equipment and collaborate with different professionals within the drinks industry.

The brains behind Crucible, Stu Bale, believes this project is an opportunity to level the playing field for bars because the expensive, high-maintenance equipment associated with premium bars is now more accessible. “I think what’s really great about our place is that you can take someone like Van Gough, a genius in his field, and try to teach him traditional methods and it wouldn’t work. There are going to be so many talented people who don’t want to do things the normal way, so they can come here and have fun.”

Last year, bartending legend and entrepreneur Dave Arnold released the Spinzall – a simpler and streamlined version of a lab-spec centrifuge. Arnold’s invention is another potential solution to the accessibility of cutting edge drinks because, ultimately, it unlocks the door for bars to work with a simpler and cheaper piece of kit while taking up half the shelf space of a conventional centrifuge. This angle could be an effective way of keeping customers engaged – especially if they can see it happen in front of their eyes. Arnold’s movement towards creating a streamlined strand of lab equipment doesn’t stop there.

The Searzall is an accessory for a blowtorch which provides an optimum distance for searing ingredients. In fact, this piece of kit is so accessible that bartender and former Monkey Shoulder brand ambassador Dean Callan has one in his garden bar in south London. Callan has spent the past year building his ultimate home bar in a cabin in his back garden. It’s equipped with everything from a Negroni machine to adjustable spotlights and it also transforms into a fully functioning movie studio for his Youtube channel and a projector drops down to unleash his gaming habits.

Although it may seem like a hobby which has gone further than expected, it acts as a thinking space for Callan to visualise his dream bar – after all, he basically built everything from scratch. Some people would think spending more than £20,000 on a garden bar is excessive, but it’s more than just a bit of fun.

While immersing himself in his cabin, Callan has thought up ways of perfecting the service in his future bar. “I want what I do in here to transfer to a bar in real life,” he says. “I have so many ideas and I don’t think a bartender’s tools should be restricted to behind the bar.” Callan has come up with a more efficient and flexible design for a bar. “The issue with having a fixed bar is that it becomes very difficult to change anything once it’s there. When I open a bar I’ll want to be able to change the actual bars to optimise service, depending on where people gravitate in the space.” Callan has come up with the idea of a modular bar, which can be adjusted to match the needs of the bartender, such as height and layout. He wants every element to be adaptable.

The concept of moving, modular bars would then allow space for more handheld tools to sit behind the counter. Alex Kratena, former head bartender at Artesian, points out the usefulness of refractometers. “This piece of equipment precisely measures sugar content of liquids, alcohol levels and much more. This allows us to be consistent” Another handy device is the micropipette, shown off by Stu Bale in Crucible. This allows bartenders to add miniscule amounts of a liquid to a cocktail recipe or a garnish, boosting precision.

However, as Whiley says, efficiency is still a key component for any bar. “We can spend time creating a beautiful cocktail behind the bar, precisely and with little waste. But ultimately if our customers have to wait too long for a drink they won’t come back.”

Speed service, therefore, must not be forgotten. In October last year, BBC programme The Gadget Show tried out the world’s first cocktail machine, the Barmate Infinite. The machine works in a similar way to a coffee machine – place a glass on the drip tray, choose your drink and wait to be served. Although the flavours of the cocktails weren’t well received by the show, the potential is there. It is easy to imagine high-volume bars in the future having several of these machines operated by ‘hands-off’ bartenders. These types of DIY machines will probably replace home bars for the middle class and, after a period of time, the resurgence of handmade cocktails will return, but that’s for another day.

As consumers get to grips with the next level of innovation, the cycle will undoubtedly continue and the industry’s thirst for better, quicker and more exciting drinks will renew. The next step for any cartoon genius is to innovate without alienating its trusty, dependable sidekick.