What does a laboratory grade rotary evaporator, canister of liquid nitrogen, oak infused ice cream, an iPad, and single malt scotch have in common? Usually not a darn thing. But last week the various disparate elements came together ironically for an event presented as, “Delicious Deconstruction”, where molecular gastronomy boy wonder and French Culinary Institute’s Director of Culinary Technology, David Arnold, took a few of us through a memorable journey of taste, pairing food and drink through the vacuum tubes of science.
The Glenlivet's “Delicious Deconstruction” gave this decade long teetotaler an opportunity to become acquainted with many of the nuances of single malt scotch whiskey during a half-week Bacchanalian festival in New Orleans known as, “Tales of the Cocktail.” The vertical tasting of nine drinks were not only presented from the perspective of the traditional mixologist, but more interestingly, from the test tubes of a chef utilizing technology with the same ease as most chefs use a whisk or saucepan.
With a spirit whose ardent fans often succumb to choosing words like "chewy" and "textured" to describe their hallowed liquid gold, I knew I was in for an experience, especially since the New Orleans event was to take an alternate detour from most tastings. With David Arnold at the helm utilizing an "application of technology and modern gastronomique techniques", the experience was equal parts Scottish tradition and scientific exploration.
The event was sort of an epiphany of taste, since I've long since relegated myself as someone who just doesn't enjoy alcohol (the dreaded Asian genetic allergic predisposition), yet found myself pleasantly pleased learning about the process of determining and describing sometimes fleeting sensations on the tongue or on the nose (yes, my nose was oenophile deep into my tumblers, if only mimicking my fellow educated invitees). There I was...sipping, sniffing, tasting and carefully considering smells/tastes that evoked memories of tart cold green apples to scorched caramel. Even this scotch whiskey nOOb was able to distinguish the sometimes subtle, other times glaringly obvious, changes in taste, bouquet and mouth feel of whiskeys straight from the distillation process versus those aged 12, 15, and 18 for years, though I admit my vocabulary was often limited to "fruity", "spicy" and "this tastes pretty good"!
It was fascinating to learn about the minute infusions of molecules through traditional technique and modern day scientific monitoring, resulting in the wide range of flavors that determine the youthful clean exuberance of a non-aged "new make" versus the complex experience of a spirit that laid dormant waiting to be sipped nearly two decade later. Arnold also used his trusty rotovap contraption as a means of pulling out the essence of flavor from various drinks, then infusing them back into a few clear elixirs for us to compare to their more traditional counterparts (one admittedly tasted like a Motörhead guitar solo blasted in your grandfather's study).
Red faced, but extremely pleased to be enjoying the expertise of someone uniquely passionate about the science of taste, we ended the tasting with Arnold creating a fresh batch of scotch and oak infused ice cream to accompany an eighteen year old vintage single malt in a memorably unique fashion. Pitching forth a hefty canister of liquid nitrogen, spilling forth what looked like an instant-ready haunted house into a stand mixer, the plan was to instantly lock in the flavor of oak into a batch of frozen smooth cream. Instead, in mad scientist fashion, the combination exploded forth into a beautiful mess (Arnold continued, slightly embarrassed, but committed to seeing his batch through), illustrating clearly why one should leave this type of gastronomic exploration to able hands. And, yes, despite the mess, the oak ice cream was a heavenly delight (so much so, this gent must admit to a second serving).
If you'd like to learn more about David Arnold, I highly recommend PopSci's 2008 profile, Doctor Delicious to better understand the method to his joyful madness. It may inspire a few of you out there to hack your cordless drill to make the ultimate stick immersion blender for the kitchen, reconsider how to utilize a soda machine to carbonate unexpected ingredients (just take our word, carbonating fruit juice should only be done in a fully tarp-covered kitchen!), or simply enjoy the world of food and drink with slightly wider eyes and mouth like I left Delicious Deconstruction with.