Words by: Denny Kallivoka
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% 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 £8,000 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 Difford’s Guide 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 Kãln 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.
The Drink Factory, the bar world equivalent of Heston Blumenthal's Development Kitchen, began well before it was located in its current Britannia Row, Islington address, and in fact well before 69 Colebrooke Row opened. "The Drink Factory website started as an exchange of ideas. What started to happen was the website opened up avenues that were not necessarily in the drinks trade, but perfumery and flavourists. Slowly but surely the website allowed us to communicate and start conversations with people we would not normally meet. It became a bit more real with the lab above the bar at 69, but it was so cramped and when these rooms came up we fell in love with them straightaway.
"What I love the most is that what would otherwise have been a conventional office has become a truly creative space. Not just in terms of the drinks but the conversations up here. We've had chefs who come with specific ideas they want to work on and perfumists or soft drinks companies. It's really snowballed."
The Drink Factory has played host to chef 'stages' from around the world, from as far afield as Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Germany. "They work at the bar and learn the stuff we do here in the lab."
Standing at this culinary crossroads, where the worlds of science, gastronomy, perfumery and bartending collide, Tony has travelled a long distance from his days as a jobbing bartender at Detroit in Covent Garden in 2002, and it would be fair to expect Tony no longer regards himself as 'simply' a bartender. Not that he's got lofty pretensions, but life in a lab means he's undoubtedly more worldly.
"I'm definitely not a scientist," he states. "I've got no scientific training, but I have had enough conversations with the right people, people who know a lot, that I know my way around the equipment we use. I still think like a bartender: I'm not much in the bars any more - I'd be shooting myself in the foot if I was, though I do the odd shift - but I keep an overview to make sure everything's running smoothly."
Despite appearances - the slick, well organised lab, with Zetter Townhouse and 69, Colebrooke Row bartenders on a strict schedule in order to ensure there's enough olive water, rhubarb cordial and horseradish vodka - Tony admits their experiments are not always successful first time round.
"Things don't always work, and learning how things work or not is part of the process. We went through 25 different versions of olive water before we settled on a recipe - it all depends on the time in the centrifuge, the speed it's set at, the temperature. I remember first thinking about some of the things we do here as far back as 1999, and some are still developing."
The message - and a warning to bars not to splash out £4,000 on a rotavap - is that merely possessing the equipment is just the start. This level of creation takes time, a lot of failures and, most importantly, patience. That's why Tony's also accommodating when he's given samples to try at bars he's visited. "I do get given works-in-progress and I really like that. Not everything is going to be finished, and it's about progressing with an idea. Even bad ideas open new doors and investigations."
Given the amount of work done in the lab, the different iterations of cocktails, and the massive cost of the equipment used, isn't the £8.50 cost of a cocktail at Zetter Townhouse and £9 at 69 Colebrooke Row hugely disingenuous? Surely, they've got to be virtual loss-leaders at that price, artificially hiding the real price? Tony insists not. "They are the cost they are. This is a normal business, we couldn't do it otherwise. It's not totally unreachable." That said, he admits that he gets healthy discounts on equipment from companies he works with.
The mix of bartending, culinary skill and science that Tony represents is, of course, fantastically young, and Tony readily acknowledges the limitations of Drink Factory's efforts. In the grand scheme of things, we're pretty much still in junior school in terms of labs, drinks, rotavaps and centrifuges, not to mention our understanding of flavour and how it works. Right, Tony?
"I don't ever want it to not be junior school," he says. "Without that sense of the unknown - and the sense of humour that goes into the ingredients and the finished drinks - it probably wouldn't work as well as it has. I - we - see this as only the beginning.
"It's kind of funny how it's developed because a lot of people said I was going down the wrong path. It was frowned upon because it was slightly wacky. People would say why don't you buy this product or that product, but I held on to that dream that things could be better, that I could make things better. Until we perfected our rhubarb cordial I had never found one I liked."
But surely there's a limit to how much progress the bar world can make in these sorts of areas? For one thing, there remains a certain societal prudishness around alcohol that suggests an appreciation of high-end mixology will never catch up with the foodie world of celebrity chefs, farmer's markets: that it will never embrace booze in the way that it has Heston's meat fruit or ooh'd and aah'd over the menu at El Bulli.
For all the interest from the food world, most of the enquiries he fields through the Drink Factory website - Tony estimates 75% - comes from within the bartending community. And frankly there are but a few bars taking similar steps to Tony investing in lab equipment.
"The food side of things is definitely more vocal and gets more national press coverage, and with food there are more entry and exit points, more to play with flavours and texture. What we can do with drinks is relatively narrow. When you chew something it's longer in your mouth, so your appreciation of it, its temperature or texture, is higher. That time span is simply lower in drinks. We're still working on creating a language within drinks that's as accepted as that banded about in food.
"There's so much going on in different countries, in Italy, the US, Spain, maybe more on the food side than the drinks industry. It's Ferran Adria but not specifically him: it's become more 'micro' than that. From the amount of stages we've put through the building, we can see how many people in different countries are interested in developing these processes, and we are bombarded with questions from people interested in our techniques."
What will the drinks of the future look like? A few years ago, the work of Eben Freeman in New York and his world of Solid Cuba Libres and Absinthe Gummi Bears briefly inspired a generation of imitators. While at Shochu Lounge Tony himself also played with caviars, jellies and the like - since then foams and emulsions have since become par for the course at many bars, though Tony has not played with texture in such a way since.
"I think that sort of 'molecular' style is beyond passé. We've never had anything like that on the menu at 69. I realised a long time ago it's more important what you do with flavour than texture. A drink is majority flavour, not texture, unless you know what you are doing. It can go wrong, terribly wrong."
"I think there is going to be a next big thing though, and it's going to be multi-sensory - tapping into every sense. I've had an avid interest in perfumery for twenty years and how it works. Even at art school I was putting smells in my paints, matching colours with smells - I can't remember which ones. I'm interested in psychology - in sounds, texture, sensory manipulation, smell - things that have nothing to do with a lab."
Smells in paints? Does he have a form of synaesthesia - common forms where people perceive letters as colours or equates different numbers with particular personalities? "I definitely look at the world a bit differently than other people. I was working with an architect and designer recently," - he gets up from desk and fetches a sketch that's destined for his forthcoming cocktail book - "and when I was explaining flavour I showed her I could actually draw flavours and show where they exist in space and time."
And how does Tony want his contribution to the drinks world to be remembered? He's circumspect, modest. "Just that something different happened - as simple as that really. That we've showed there are communications to be had. I love being right in the middle of it. I guess that's it - being part of it, part of the chaos."
Every industry needs a section that's doing something just for the sake of it, to see where it leads. Big corporate companies call it 'blue skies thinking' - seeing what's possible and then working out the application. Tony started down this particular path before anyone else. Arguably it's his work that has inspired a generation of bartenders who now similarly straddle the worlds of bartending and science. Who knows where any of them will take us or what's around the next corner? Bring on the chaos.
Bar owner and entrepreneur