On the face of it, the idea of adding carbonation to a cocktail might not exactly sound like an innovation.
After all, from the Cuba Libre to the Gin Fizz, bubbles and booze have had a time-honoured and mutually beneficial relationship.
But now that it's becoming less acceptable to simply add soda to liquor, bartenders are going to great lengths to carbonate the actual finished cocktail. They want to monitor the quality of the bubbles and eliminate problems of over-dilution.
"Because gin isn't carbonated and neither is the citrus and sweetener, that means half of a long drink like a Tom Collins starts out flat," explains Grant Sceney, head bartender at Vancouver's Fairmont Pacific Rim. "So, if you add enough soda to make it effervescent, you risk over-diluting it."
Sceney's admittedly first-world problem was solved last spring by the arrival of a prototype of the Perlini carbonating cocktail shaker, an invention based on a champagne recarbonation system first test-marketed in 2003 by inventor Evan Wallace. Wallace recognized, however, that with a few modifications his carbonation system would work to carbonate any alcohol, including cocktails. To that end, he dropped one off at the Fairmont in advance of a 2012 spring cocktail festival and the trial runs were a hit. The Perlini became a permanent fixture in the Lobby Lounge Bar. In fact, they now have four.
That might have been the happy ending to this story, had it not been for the fact that new-fangled gadgets invite experimentation, especially with cocktail bartenders who are always on the prowl for the next big thing. That thing, it turns out, is the addition of carbonation to drinks that never called for it in the first place – carbonated Sidecars (lemon, brandy and orange liqueur), for example.
"Although it's pretty clearly marked on the menu, we occasionally have a guest who doesn't notice and thinks they're ordering the classic cocktail," says Sceney. "They're surprised to find bubbles in their Sidecar but it's almost always a pleasant surprise."
Solomon Siegel, who recently helmed a carbonated cocktail seminar at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, explains that some cocktails (like citrus-based ones), work better than others because carbonation doesn't just add neutral bubbles to a cocktail, it also adds acidity.
"When carbonation is dissolved in liquid, it becomes carbonic acid," explains Siegel. "So it heightens certain flavours, like lemon or lime. The orange in a liqueur really shines with carbonation."
Two Toronto bars, Salt Wine Bar and the recently opened Home of the Brave, have both implemented carbonation systems though they're eschewing the commercial route by "MacGyvering" their own.
"It's still a little messy and I'm waiting for one last part to be delivered," said Nick Kennedy of Salt Wine Bar this week, "but I had my first carbonated Boulevardier [bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth] about an hour ago and it was delicious."
Kennedy plans to try carbonating everything from the Old Fashioned to espresso cocktails to see what works best. Home of the Brave's general manager Taylor Corrigan, is going the conservative route by just carbonating house-made sodas, so that he can produce first rate artisanal versions of standard mixed drinks such as rye and ginger and gin and tonic.
"There have been a lot of people using it on high-alcohol cocktails, like Manhattans," says Corrigan. "But I think there's a reason people have been drinking their Manhattan flat for all these years."
It's clear we're in for a wide range of experimentation with new systems, but for the most part – at least, so far – bartenders are sticking with fairly safe choices for adding bubbles.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that carbonation has revolutionized the cocktail world," says Sceney of the Fairmont. "But it's definitely improved it."