In the first of a two-part feature, Tony Conigliaro gives us a guided tour of his lab and explains the origin of many of his cocktails.
If there was one particular moment which turned Tony Conigliaro on to the path he now follows - one which blurs the line between bars, gastronomy and science - it was a day in 1999, when he was working at Isola restaurant in Knightsbridge.
"I had a sort of realisation," he recalls. "I wanted to make a pear and cinnamon purée for a Bellini, but couldn't find any pear purées that I liked or that worked with Prosecco. I started talking to the pastry chef about purées I could source, and that turned into talking about how I could make a purée from scratch.
"I realised I didn't have to buy one, that I could make one myself, within cost. And that it would be better. That was the trigger," he recalls.
From a humble desire to create a pear purée of the ultimate purity was born an unpredictable series of academic, culinary and commercial collaborations that would, in turn, lead to the creation and application of new gastronomic and scientific techniques. Those techniques would arguably transform the world of modern drinks.
Today, a look around the Drink Factory, Tony's office and laboratory housed in Pink Floyd's former recording studios in Islington, articulates the length of the journey he has taken. Among this collection of steel tables and sophisticated lab machinery, under polystyrene ceiling tiles, is where he spends much of his day and where ingredients used in not less than 60 per cent of the drinks on the menu at the Zetter Townhouse and all of them at 69, Colebrooke Row are born. Around us, people bustle around, grinding, vacuum sealing, even stripping bark from trees. A far cry from a normal bartender's normal duties: all in a day's work here.
"This is basic kit for us," says Tony, indicating a vacuum machine. It's designed to suck the air out of plastic pouches containing botanicals and fruits, often to infuse in alcohol, and as if on cue, it springs open at the end of a cycle, offering up a vacuum-packed bag of mysterious bright red goo - it turns out to be a port reduction. "It's got so many different uses, it keeps things fresh by creating a stable, hygienic environment, and means delicate ingredients can then be cooked in a bain marie." That's next in line: inside there's a bag of gooseberries macerating in alcohol cooking slowly away. "We've been making various cordials in this. We cook purées at a low heat, so it doesn't damage the ingredients: the more heat you add the more you can damage them."
Next, the gastrovac - basically a high pressure cooker for solid, raw ingredients - contributes to the hums, hisses and clicks that punctuate the air. Then there are two rotary evaporators - the workhorses of any aspirant bartender alchemist. They've just finished a run of horseradish vodka and Tony offers up the spent horseradish in the distilling flask to smell - it no longer has any aroma, whereas the newly rectified, crystal clear spirit is powerful and peppery, having taken on the raw material's aromatic compounds. "It's a real step up from what you'd normally be able to buy," he says.
At up to £4,000 each, the cost of a rotavap suggests that this isn't equipment you're likely to see on the back-bar as standard equipment at most bars. "Actually, they've paid for themselves many times over. At face value they're expensive but the number of Bloody Marys we sell with horseradish vodka in is phenomenal. It's also where we make the port evaporation for our Master at Arms cocktail - if you just reduce it in a pan you'll lose flavours, but in a vacuum it works beautifully." As he talks, he's animated and enthusiastic, relaxed and less intense than he can sometimes seem - he clearly loves getting his hands dirty here.
Below the rotavaps are two chillers - the digital read-outs register -20°C - which pump blue antifreeze, just like you'd put in your car windscreen, around the condensing chambers of the rotavaps. Behind them is another sort of still - a Soxhelet still. "It allows us to get essential oils from very hard substances, such as star anise or cinnamon. It's a bit like a continuous still." Over here are peristotic pumps, which allow fractional distillation. "This one was put together by Dave Arnold," says Tony, referring to the French Culinary Institute in New York's Director of Culinary Technology, a close collaborator.
A small pile of pine cones are remnants from one of the earlier pine-infused gin variants used in the Woodland Martini (now they are using Norwegian spruce branches, which lie in a pile just around the corner). Tony shows us cupboards full of botanicals and chemicals, salts and flavours. "This is Bulgarian rose," he says, offering up a small bottle, "it's absolutely stunning."
Onwards to a centrifuge. It spins at up to 5000rpm, a speed sufficient to separate liquids from solids. "This is where our rhubarb and nettle cordials start life and it's how we make our olive water for Dirty Martinis - normally when you order one it's basically brine with olives macerated in it. We take olives, stick them in the centrifuge and force the water from the olives - it's a really clean, pure olive flavour and we've never sold so many Dirty Martinis. That's the difference between brine and olive water."
The last of the big equipment is a thermomix - a titanium-blade mixer, designed to cook things while they are being mixed. "It's good for purées where you need to keep them moving. It's also good if you want to make a tankload of hot toddies."
Across the way is a small part of the Drink Factory's flavour library - glass jars containing everything from standard gin botanicals to chocolate buttons, and a few secret ingredients he won't allow us to film, destined for unnamed clients. These won't all result in new drinks flavours, but represent the way Tony's understanding of flavour and his interest in bringing different cultures within the worlds of food, drink, flavour and aroma together has attracted attention from outside the bar world. He's developing bespoke flavours for chocolatiers Damien Allsop and Paul A Young and lets us smell what he calls an 'anti-perfume' - a cowboy-style scent of leather, smoke, whiskey and sweat that is in development for an undisclosed client. "Often, people don't tend to come from the drinks industry. People come to us because we can do something really bespoke and because perfume houses cost a lot of money."
Around us, there are about around ten people busying around - a mixture of bartenders from both bars (working to a strict schedule), permanent lab technicians and administrative staff working on Tony's forthcoming cocktail book and helping organise his schedule. We sit back at his desk, watched over by a cardboard cut-out of Tony as James Bond - a relic from his 40th birthday - while books by the likes of Ferran Adria litter the desktop.
Seeing him in this environment is an unusual privilege. Not only is CLASS the first publication to be given access to the lab, but the setting is far removed from the environment of the bars themselves, where there's scant hint about the drinks' laboratory origins - either on menus or on the back-bar. On face value, given Tony's increasing emphasis on creating whole sensory experiences, this is a puzzling omission. You might think that more overtly marketing the work done behind the scenes to create each drink would help build curiosity, raise expectations around the promised flavours and encourage new drinkers to truly understand the sophistication that 21st century mixology offers.
For Tony, these are deliberate omissions. "It's like a magic trick - the minute you explain how it's done it loses its mystique and becomes a tawdry illusion. Maintaining the illusion is what makes it fun: to leave you questioning how things were done. I like that idea of the magic and the conversation that goes through the drink.
"I don't want to force my own interpretation on you. If you are naturally curious you will start a conversation with the bartender. I want people to read something, think that it sounds interesting and to engage with it and the bartender. That's better than simply having it described to you. Something that's better made will register higher on your flavour perception."
To illustrate, he gets up from the desk and returns with a glass containing vodka that's been distilled in the rotavap with flints - yes, stones from a friend's house in Sussex - which is used in the Sirocco cocktail at 69, Colebrooke Row (flint and pink peppercorn vodka, sugar and grapefruit oils). "Even if you don't know what flint tastes of you probably have an understanding based of what a 'mineral' wine tastes like." I take a sip - it tastes surprisingly sweet, vanilla-rich and creamy. "Just wait, give it a few seconds," says Tony. He's right, on the finish it's suddenly really earthy. "You may not have tasted fig leaf before either" - he's talking about the Peach & Fig Leaf Bellini - "but you probably have an expectation based on your relationship with fig."
It's a similar explanation in terms of why each drink is deliberately classic in style and presentation - no foams, airs, smokes or caviars on show here, the drinks are deliberately understated. You might catch a glimpse of a laboratory-grade pipette in the Köln Martini (to deliver an ultra-precise dose of citrus aromatics on to the surface of the drink) but that's about it: "I'm not a used car salesman and I think we avoid gimmick. You won't find gold dust on my drinks, there's nothing there for the sake of it. Everything in here" - he gestures around the lab - "is used every day."
Could anything done in the lab here be described by that dirty word: 'molecular' mixology? This gets short shrift: "Nothing that we do is molecular. It's a label that's been used attached to what's going on and tends to be copies of stuff that chefs have done. What makes anything molecular? Most people aren't looking at structures, it's just formulas used as techniques. Here, we're more about investigating why these things work. I don't call that molecular. It's creative - I prefer it to be a creative process."
Like any artist - Tony studied fine art and critical practice creative - the process of creating a new drink often starts life as a personal experience he has had. "Each cocktail has a story. Sometimes we start with a concept and work out the drink, sometimes it's the other way round. With the Woodland Martini we did a lot of work with umami and wood, and made a Woodland Bitters based on a walk I took in Portland, Oregon. I wanted to approach bitters from a new angle, to base it around the smell of barks and smoked leaves. We matched those notes with amontillado sherry, as a bridge between the gin and the bitters, so it's starts light but the flavours go deeper, just as you'd go deeper into the woods.
"The Barbershop Fizz is supposed to evoke the sensational equivalent of having a shave, so the flavour - the pine-infused gin, from the rotavap, the patchouli-infused mint, which we make in the gastrovac and the birch and vanilla syrup - is like a slap in the face happening in your mouth. Even the American straws are evocative of the old barbershop sign and the glass we serve it in evokes the font used on the old Barbicide antiseptic."
The Tony Conigliaro of 1999, in search of that perfect pear purée, would probably be surprised to see the complex cordials, infusions, test batches and perfumes in development at his Britannia Row, N1 laboratory. And he would probably be interested to learn that he'd be the owner of such esoteric laboratory equipment, would purchase piles of Norwegian spruce or take stones from the countryside as drinks ingredients.
Thirteen years on, Tony can't remember the name of the helpful pastry chef at Isola that helped him out, but that patissier unwittingly bears responsibility for inspiring a relentless pursuit of perfection, for creating a new generation of gastronomic- and science-influenced bartenders - and, most importantly, for unleashing a bit of the mad scientist in Tony.
Next week, more from Tony: why he does what he does, what its enduring effect will be and where he's going next.