Words by: Ian Cameron
He's the Canadian research scientist who turned his attention to the bar world, reignited interest in the soda fountains of old and introduced bartenders to the wonders of acid phosphate. Meet Darcy O'Neil.
In the contemporary world of craft cocktails, there are plenty of pseudo-scientist bartenders who have one eye in the history books and the other on the latest lab-born drinks trend.
There are far fewer who can claim any sort of genuine scientific authority. Canadian Darcy O'Neil manages to straddle both worlds. "I'm intrigued by looking to the past and using my understanding of science to create new drinks in the future," he says. Having swapped life in the lab for bartending, the former research scientist has never lost his inquisitive edge and despite his new-found prowess at the stick, remains true to his core training: "I still see myself as a scientist. I enjoy understanding how things work, whether it's engines, cars or how to make a drink taste better."
Along the way, despite having been sacked a couple of times as a result of his enthusiastic fervour to improve things, he's become an agony uncle to bar boffins worldwide and is now on a mission to convince bartenders to adopt a more scientific ethos to their drinks experiments.
Darcy was catapulted into bartending when he was laid off amid a downsizing at the refinery he was working at in 2005. In many ways it was a return to the fold as his father was a bartender and his mother a waitress. He started writing his Art of Drink blog as a way to properly document how he would modify the bad drinks at the casinos and chain restaurants he was working in - an early sign of bringing his scientific ethos to play.
At this stage, his drinks "tinkering" was nothing more than a geeky hobby, but the timing coincided with the birth of the modern cocktail golden age, and when he found a rare cocktail book from the mid-19th century in the university library, scanned pages from it and published them on his blog, traffic to his site spiked. With hindsight, he realises the significance of chancing upon an 1862 first edition of Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks. "Back then there was a reverence for Jerry Thomas among a few people, like Dale DeGroff, but it wasn't like it is now. Not a lot of people have seen an original copy - it had been re-covered but it was in good shape, I remember that old book smell - but I only realised the importance when I looked back."
While he was successful in convincing some customers that fresh lime juice was better than sour mix, and impressed other guests with his original recipe Mai Tai, his employers were less than impressed. "I tried to improve their drinks but was fired twice and asked to leave another time. Guests appreciated it but I hadn't understood that restaurants tend to be privately owned, it's someone's passion and I had usurped their menu."
Nonetheless, Darcy took to his new world with a giddy enthusiasm and an academic's passion, quickly finding a new obsession in the shape of the golden era of American soda fountains. "When you look at pictures of old saloons they were all dirty, but old pharmacies were staffed by medical professionals and had to look the part - if you wanted someone to use you, you had to act professional. Saloons had rough wooden bars but soda fountains gilded marble tops and Tiffany lamps." He self-published his first book, Fix the Pumps, with over 450 soda recipes, in 2010 and sells up to 100 copies per month.
His current mission, the subject of a seminar he led at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, is 'buzz management' - a spin-off of this obsession, promoting responsible drinking by creating flavourful low- or no-alcohol drinks that boast a similar level of complexity to booze, creating more interesting 'spacers' than boring old water, Coke or fruit juice could ever hope. "We haven't catered to everybody and everything that's non-alcoholic is rather bleak," he says. "A rum soda without any rum in it can keep people in their seats and not worry about drinking and driving."
Key to his goal is an arsenal of esoteric ingredients: his home bar boasts ingredients that would not look out of place in a funeral parlour to the unitiated, things like ethyl heptanate and rum ether, which boast similar aromatic compounds to, respectively, cognac and rum, as well as essential floral oils and other clever agents. Acid phosphate, a souring ingredient that was widely used by traditional soda jerks, is one such agent that Darcy has single-handedly revived- the benefit is that it does not influence flavour like citrus. "I make the acid phosphate myself and I use a rented commercial kitchen. I do everything from make the phosphate to labelling the bottles and shipping of the product. Typically I sell about 300 to 400 bottles per month."
His scientific credentials afford Darcy a unique position to arbitrate on contemporary bartending trends. Unfortunately, many of these get short shrift, not because bartenders' enthusiasm in them is misplaced but because of a lack of any surrounding scientific technique behind them.
Take bartenders' enthusiasm to infuse anything that ain't nailed down. You'd think this was innocuous stuff but Darcy has fielded enquiries about the toxicity of tobacco infusions and even apricot kernels and cherry stones that contain cyanide. "Luckily, no one's died but there are cases of people getting sick." Plus there's the fact that from one batch to the next they're unlikely to ever be the same - something bound to frustrate an exacting scientist.
Another hallmark of science is the sharing of information and peer review - something lacking in most bartender experiments. "When I investigated tobacco infusions I detailed every thought I had and put it out for everyone to criticise me."
The scientist's angst about consistency also applies to barrel-aging. That bars promote 'batches' or 'vintages' of aged cocktails with varying flavour profiles cuts no ice with Darcy. "With barrel-aging mostly this is marketing portraying itself as science. I don't want to be the fun police but I really want bartenders to understand method."
And don't get him started on barrel-aging spirits such as whisky - the irony that master distillers and blenders typically come from scientific backgrounds and that their spirits are carefully nurtured for consistency between batches is not lost on Darcy when he sees expensive dark spirits put in small new oak barrels. "You put a lot of money in and you get wild results," he says.
He seems perplexed by the craze for bars to distil their own products - not because they are doing it but because they are not doing it consistently. "Rotavaps and centrifuges cost a lot to buy and to maintain, and you can make something new every day, but what bartenders should be doing is learning the fundamentals: observation, reproduceability and documentation."
Even when developing a cocktail, going through different iterations, he'd like to see bartenders adopt more rigorous note-taking. "A lot of people like science, they enjoy it but don't have training to differentiate between a result and an observation. The truth of it is that the practice of science is boring, whereas pseudo-science is sexy."
His point is that rigorous scientific practice will make for more consistent drinks and the ability of different staff to repeat formulae. "When you can reproduce a cocktail that tastes the same you allow people to make an informed choice about their preference. If you can't get your bar staff to make the same drink twice, customers probably won't order it again, and that's bad for business." For this reason batching and kegging cocktails get the O'Neil seal of approval.
The bottom line is that without properly documenting their experiments and research, Darcy suggests bartenders are holding back wider advancement of the craft and, crucially, delaying a wider recognition of the industry as professional. "Cooking has had science for ages, but with bartending we are behind the curve. Drinks science traditionally lies with distillers but not bartenders: I'm not here to teach chemistry, but to give people tools, advise them with my experience and to encourage more thought. That looks more professional and that's good for business."
Despite wanting to see more scientific practice in bars, he's got a cautionary word about actively promoting any scientific methods to drinkers. He nods to Tony Conigliaro, among the leading laboratory enthusiasts, whose ingredients may have been born in a test tube but there's no way of detecting that from his finished drinks.
"It's like mobile phones: we all use them but no one knows how they work. [Consumers] are scared of new things and we shouldn't forget we are still having difficulty getting people to drink cocktails in the first place. You want the experience to be seamless. We are bartenders so whatever method we use [behind the scenes] shouldn't cloud their enjoyment of it."
That rationale extends to his own fantasy bar. Not for him the confections born of white-coated boffins in a lab, but a beach bar with a great sunset and a place to serve his prized low-alcohol drinks. "There's a town on Lake Huron called Grand Bend which National Geographic has rated as one of the top ten locations for sunsets. For me it would have to be a soda fountain bar - no Old Fashioneds or Mojitos, but some refreshing tiki drinks, a good Piña Colada to get them through the door and then some soda-style cocktails."