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Junior Merino's Liquid Lab


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#1 Chris Amirault

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Posted 06 July 2010 - 12:53 PM

A few Society members have attended the Liquid Lab, a long day of mad mixological research and development hosted by Junior and Heidi Merino. (Website here; Facebook page here; short Serious Eats piece here.) I'll be attending this Sunday's session and hope to share notes about it here.

First off, though: who's been? What happened? Do tell.
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#2 KatieLoeb

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Posted 07 July 2010 - 12:24 AM

Chris:

Just go. Your experience will be different than anyone else's, but still be very personal and worthy of the exploration. Go with an open mind and open heart. Imagine yourself in a place with anything you've ever read or heard about (and many things you haven't) at your disposal and go wild. Be ready to play. Be ready to be creative and think on the fly. That's the whole point. Have fun with it! Junior and Heidi are most gracious hosts. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. I reiterate. Have fun with it.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol


#3 Chris Amirault

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Posted 07 July 2010 - 02:27 AM

No worries there: the entire premise is mindbogglingly fun! Did you bring your own kit, Katie?
Chris Amirault
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#4 KatieLoeb

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Posted 07 July 2010 - 10:01 PM

Not necessary. The Lab is equipped to handle each attendee with their own station and set up. It's tight, but it works. You're going to have a blast!!! Send them my best regards.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol


#5 Chris Amirault

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Posted 13 July 2010 - 06:29 AM

Decompressing still from an intense, overwhelming experience in the Bronx. Lots of notes to share, some that I still have with me and some that Heidi will be faxing back to me after sharing them with the sponsors (as proof that we actually attended). More very soon. At least my pores have stopped exuding mezcal.
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#6 Chris Amirault

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Posted 13 July 2010 - 11:11 AM

I thought I'd first put up the recipes I "developed" while there. "Developed" is in quotation marks; there's not enough time, sensory awareness, or sobriety to really work through a set of principles and arrive at a coherent drink. In addition, you are required to use one of the sponsoring base spirits, and if you have any liqueurs in the drink you have to include one of the sponsoring liqueurs. (Sunday it was the two Combiers -- finding plain Combier lousy, I just used Royal Combier -- Canton ginger, Castries, and a thin cherry liqueur I thought was lousy.)

I was hesitant to dive into the "tropical sour" with both feet for a while (more on that later), and that's reflected in my drinks. Finally, a lot of my decisions were driven by wanting to use specific ingredients I have no access to here.

Of the ten I created, here are the handful I wrote down in my own notes as at least remotely redeemable:

Pisco Old Fashioned

2 oz Macchu Pisco
1/2 oz Royal Combier
barspoon Del Maguey Minero mezcal
barspoon Licor 43
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl bitters
2" orange peel

Stir; strain; rim glass with peel.

Ricardo Montalban, so named because it tasted like what I'd imagine "rich Corinthian leather" would taste like.

2 oz Siambra Azul anejo tequila
1 oz Old Monk rum
1/2 oz Junior's Dainzu gum syrup
2 dashes Amargo Chuncho bitters

Stir; strain.

After those OFs, moved into another pattern:

Dessert for Clyde

2 oz Chairman's Reserve rum
1 oz Castries
1 1/2 oz Foco roasted coconut juice
dash Junior's Dainzu pasilla/cinnamon salt
dash Scrappy's chocolate bitters

Shake; strain; garnish with nutmeg.

I finally gave into the tyrrany of melon (more on that, too) with this one:

2 oz Ilegal reposada tequila
3/4 oz Royal Combier
3/4 oz lemon juice
peel of 1/2 lemon (no pith)
2" cuke, diced
BT grapefruit bitters

Muddle the lemon peel with the liquids, then muddle the cuke with the mess. Shake; fine strain.
Chris Amirault
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#7 Chris Amirault

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Posted 14 July 2010 - 02:20 PM

We arrived at Junior and Heidi's place for the 10a start. You drive to a street in the Bronx and then call Heidi up; someone on their team meets you at the street and walks you into a typical NYC full-block brick apartment complex. Alley here, door here, hallway (past a very busy kitchen), and then into the two lab rooms.

In the far room, the walls are lined with Liquid Lab/Junior Merino paraphernalia, a variety of canned juices, sodas, and other drinks, snack items, powders, and who knows what else. This is the room in which all spirit tasting is done. (You also watch marketing DVDs from the sponsors, which range from fascinating -- I liked the pisco one -- to unintentionally humorous.)

The long tables are set with ten small glasses at ten different stations, along with a small cup of coffee beans (to clear your nasal passages as you are overwhelmed by sensation). Each glass receives about 10-20 ml of a given spirit, and as a group, led by Junior, you taste them one at a time -- and then repeat the tasting a second time. It's a trick to leave a few ml in the glass, but it's worth it: as Junior explained (and I experienced), you develop a sense of the nuances of the spirits both times, and often different elements reveal themselves only the second time around, in the context of the other spirits.

We tasted five rounds of ten spirits, or fifty total; because you repeat each tasting, in effect you taste one hundred spirits with great concentration. In addition, given the short amount of time that we have for the entire lab experience, the tastings are pretty speedy: we probably spent an average of only 1-2 minutes for each spirit taste and discussion, or about 30-40 minutes for each round (remember, tasted each one twice). The last two tastings were even faster than that. We were, that is to say, nowhere near Paul Pacult's 20 minutes per spirit, and I definitely felt rushed.

Despite that, it was pretty thrilling to taste those fifty spirits: mezcals and scotches, piscos and rums, tequilas and bourbons. The vast majority I'd never tasted before, and I hadn't heard of nearly half even when I learned their name; most I'd never have the opportunity to taste if not for the LL. Certain aspects of spirit-making, particularly distilling and aging, became much clearer to me as we walked through the selections, and for the first time I felt I was using definitive benchmarks for what I tended to like (length, complexity, smoke, heat, "funk," oily mouthfeel) and didn't like (too much oak, vanilla, what I'd call simplicity and other people called "smoothness," sugar).

Writing that sentence out, I remember my discomfort at the vocabulary we were using in our discussion. Junior would say, "So let's try number X. What do you smell? Taste?" One member of the group (most often Junior) would toss out an adjective or noun, and that would become one of the terms we'd then toss around. I found it distracting: crowd-sourcing such an intimate, personal experience from the outset was hard for me to manage, the social task of verbal negotiation competing with the sensory onslaught in my nose and mouth that made me close my eyes (and want to close my ears). In addition, the first words spoken often became the ersatz consensus; though there were many times that our tastes differed, collective descriptors tended to build from those foundations. Perhaps they were consistently accurate, but it was hard for me to tell after a while, honestly.

So I started focusing in on two or three spirits per round, trying to peel away their layers while others plowed forward to the next glass. If I was fading, I'd grab the coffee beans and inhale, take a sip of water, and try again, but it got tough. Indeed, it's hard to explain the levels of concentration and sensory intensity this exercise required. I'm damned glad I was spitting throughout, or this would have been a futile exercise by round three.

I'd share my tasting notes except I don't have them; they were on the sheets I filled out and turned into Heidi. When I get them faxed back I'll add those notes here.

Next up: cocktail-o-rama.
Chris Amirault
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#8 JAZ

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Posted 15 July 2010 - 09:14 AM

Chris, what did each "round" consist of? Different exemplars of one spirit (that is, 10 Scotches side by side)? Or family types, such as 10 different kinds of whiskies?

Did the coffee beans and water alone really clear your palate enough between rounds?

#9 Chris Amirault

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Posted 17 July 2010 - 06:55 PM

Chris, what did each "round" consist of? Different exemplars of one spirit (that is, 10 Scotches side by side)? Or family types, such as 10 different kinds of whiskies?


It was all aged stuff, but within the categories there were a variety of sub-categories. One was tequila/mezcal; one brandy (including pisco); one rum (including cachaca); one whisk(e)y. Hrm... that's four.... I'll add the fifth when I get my tasting notes back.

Did the coffee beans and water alone really clear your palate enough between rounds?


I probably used the beans three or four times per round, not just between rounds. I can't really say it worked to the extent I'd have liked.
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#10 Chris Amirault

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Posted 17 July 2010 - 07:48 PM

As I mentioned above, there are two rooms: the tasting room and the mixing room.

The mixing room is set up with a small cocktail station for each participant: Boston shaker, Hawthorne strainer, fine strainer, knife, cutting board, muddler. Virtually every other tool you might want is also there. (Then there's the tools you really want: an anti-griddle, Robot Coupe, tank of liquid nitrogen, cotton candy machine, immersion circulator... you name it, he's got it.)

Surrounding the room are industrial shelves of booze. More booze than you can possibly fathom. It's like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon: you can't quite take it all in, it defies your expectation so. While the selection is amazing in virtually every category, the tequila and mezcal shelf is mindblowing: "Largest collection in the country," said Junior, and I believe him. After a while, to adjust to your surroundings you start playing "Can You Find It?" and always find whatever you're looking for.

In addition to the booze, the room is stocked with just about every fruit, herb, spice, and vegetable you can imagine might go into a cocktail -- and then a few dozen more. Before you get to the spirits, you have a marathon tasting session with those items. Here's the list of herbs:

apple mint, delicate mint, micro orchids, "ice plant," orange mint, lime mint, chocolate mint, "hearts on fire," lemon mint, pineapple mint, cream basil, tricolor sage, purple basil, arugula blossom, licorice mint, tangerine lace, tarragon, atsina, borage, dill, peppermint, shiso, lemon basil, oregano, Italian basil, micro cilantro, dulce leaves, stevia.

I won't list the spices and fruits -- you get the idea. After each spirit tasting, you develop two recipes using sponsors' spirits and, as noted, sponsors' liqueurs. Junior had infused at least two or three bottles of each spirit with interesting things -- raisin bread, habañeros, Buddha's hand, ginger, tobacco -- and those were often the most fun items on the table.

The spirits were damned fine stuff -- Compass Box scotches, Ilegal mezcal, Macchu Pisco, and more -- and I would have loved free reign to build drinks with them and the amazing stock surrounding the room. However, the rule requiring use of the sponsored liqueurs before any others really ties your hands. Since the cherry liqueur wasn't any good, and the Castries and Canton tend to dominate any drink they're in, I ended up using the Royal Combier all day long, with few exceptions in which I used the Castries or Canton for the heck of it or avoided liqueurs entirely.

It's a minor complaint, though, given the astonishing selection. I got to play with dozens of items I'd always wanted to try: Damiana, a Mexican herbal liqueur; about a dozen mezcals; Old Monk rum; Amargo Chuncho (etc.) and Scrappy's bitters; on and on. In addition, I got to taste other people's experiments, which allowed us to talk about hits and misses. (Yes, that's right: you taste everyone else's drinks -- adding, what, about 90 drinks to the 50 spirits and countless other ingredients.)

The emphasis around the room was squarely on what you might call "tropical sours" -- spirit; citrus; floral, fruit or herbal accent. That also seems to be Junior's wheelhouse, and the man has a genius for combining tricky components with ease. Cucumbers and other melons made multiple appearances over the course of the day, the round, clean flavor carrying and blending a lot of otherwise disparate elements. After Junior mentioned the role of salt in drinks, it started popping up quite a bit, making it clear that one needs to temper the heavy hand when pinching away.
Chris Amirault
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