A Liquid Nitrogen Cocktail Party
My friends and I religiously follow Dave Arnold’s Cooking Issues podcast. David “Momofuku” Chang explains why:
He is the smartest person I have ever met. He carries a spelunker’s headlight and a length of rope made out of some indestructible material with him at all times. There are some aspects of cooking and eating that he probably knows more about than anyone who’s ever lived. He’s also an impossibly good get to get drunk with on a train.
The Strongest possible recommend. Cooking Issues podcast is like being drunk on a train with Dave Arnold for an hour every Tuesday.
Arnold recently wrote a book about cocktails, Liquid Intelligence. Are you familiar with Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold’s $500 cookbook? L.I. is that, but for drinking. And it’s just $25! If you’ve ever bought a bottle of vermouth (whether you liked it or not) you should own this book.
A lot of L.I. is about chilling, including about 20 pages discussing liquid nitrogen. A danger of Dave Arnold’s writing is that it can be bewitching, and that danger bit us hard. Tomek and I inhaled the book shortly after it was published and knew immediately that we would soon be goofing around with LN. And so it came to pass that on January 10, 2015, we had a liquid nitrogen cocktail party.
I am advised by legal counsel not to encourage you to have a liquid nitrogen cocktail party. Dangers include but are not limited to: blindness, severe burns, perforated alimentary canal, rapid asphyxiation, explosions. No ironic hyperbole is intended: these are real dangers. You should understand each risk before playing with LN.
What Happens At An LN Cocktail Party?
Four things, of which we ended up successfully doing three:
Nitro-muddling, a potent way of quickly getting aromatics into a cocktail.
Cocktail glass chilling, to serve drinks in pleasantly frosted glasses.
“Rock-and-rolling”, which exploits LN to batch-chill cocktails so you can serve the whole party a lot of drinks quickly.
Yes, we made ice cream. Yes, it is easy and very good.
I’ll walk through each of these.
Sourcing and Prep
The obvious first question to ask is, “where and how do I get LN?”
The big challenge is storage. LN will hold in an uncovered, uncapped thermos (if you seal LN into a container you will die) for hours but not days. To hold it for a long time, you need a special container called a dewar. A typical dewar is just a big heavy thermos designed to store LN. It looks like a slightly embiggened propane grill tank.
I bought my dewar from Amazon Prime. Things to know about getting a dewar: they are expensive (hundreds of dollars), and their prices scale non-linearly with capacity in a way that makes small dewars totally un-economical. I wound up buying a 20L dewar.
There is a used market for dewars. You can allegedly rent them, but (a) I didn’t find a place that would do it, and (b) you need to make sure that the dewar is food-safe. The questions you ask to find that out seem to alarm the places that might have had rentable dewars. I value time more than money right now (that’s how I rationalize my laziness) and so I just bought.
The LN itself you get from welding supply stores; I got mine from Praxair. Just call stores, ask if they have liquid nitrogen (many do), and then if they can fill a dewar on-site. I paid about a hundred bucks to fill my dewar, which is probably on the high side of what LN should cost.
A dewar stores LN long-term, outside the house. Thermoses store it inside. Every person handling LN at the party needs a stable thermos, preferably with a handle. The thermoses with the chain-attached handles and the concave lids worked really well for us.
Liquid nitrogen is dangerous. Here are two high-level principles we relied on to keep from hurting anyone:
Paranoia: For a good mental model of culinary LN, imagine heating a container of frying oil to 200C in an oven, leaving that super-hot container out on your workspace, The clothing implications are counterintuitive: ever accidentally splashed boiling pasta water onto your socks? If you splash LN on your skin, it’ll hurt. But if it gets trapped by a glove, you may end up in the hospital. and then combining it with wet ingredients. It follows that you want to minimize the amount of LN in your workspace, held in containers that can’t easily tip over, positioned so that you won’t knock them over. You need protective eyewear, because recipes can boil and splash.
Isolation: The rule is, guests don’t experience LN, just its chilling effect. Only an ordained few handle LN. Their most important rule: never actually serve LN to guests. Keep the LN itself away from guest areas. We announced to everyone, even though it felt dumb to say it, that guests weren’t allowed to handle LN.
Back To Prep
To make the drinks from Liquid Intelligence, we needed:
- Blanco Mezcal
- White Rum
- Linie Aquavit
- Luxardo Maraschino (this is not cherry liqueur)
LN is expensive, asking people to pitch in money is awkward, bringing booze to a party is festive, and so a good plan is to ask guests to bring spirits to defray costs. We may have ended the party with more alcohol than we had at the beginning.
You’ll also need:
- Thai basil (Asian grocery)
- 2.5 Fuckloads Of Limes
- Sour Oranges (optional)
We had bar supplies for each person making drinks: boston shakers, bar spoons, tea strainers, cocktail strainers, squeeze bottles, an ice bucket and a discard bin. We had hand-held juicers and a good scale, too.
For the party writ large, we needed 6 (metric) fuckloads of barware. If you’re going to chill glasses, they need to be (a) glass, (b) with rims that curve inward to inhibit splashing, (c ) relatively thick. Shop at restaurant supply stores! They’re great. You want small glasses; the smallest coupe glass you can find is the right size. We bought several dozen glasses from a restaurant supply store.
The most important thing I learned from actually doing this at a real party: pre-portion the aromatics. A double-batch of any of the drinks in L.I. calls for 6-9g of an herb, which will need to be plucked from the stem and measured. It sucks to do this last minute. We’d have been much better off if we’d measured out batches of herbs into sandwich baggies and had each batch ready to go.
Citrus juice holds for a couple hours. Ideally, you do a little math and figure out how many drinks you want to serve per hour given your guest list and juice everything ahead of time. You can even delegate this to guests. We didn’t do any of this, and our citrus juicing was a bit of a fiasco.
We made a quart of simple syrup beforehand Vitamix for the win. , and filled a squeeze bottle with what the dorks at my party were calling “angel’s tears” but is actually just 1:5 salt water.
Plan stations. Each bartender works with:
- A thermos of LN
- A boston shaker with LN in it
- A bunch of herbs
- A couple bottles of spirits
- A couple squeeze and dropper bottles
- A line of prepared glasses
- A discard bucket
My house is small. I wish we had done a better job planning this; we didn’t make very good use of the space, and could have isolated the LN better.
Outside the house, we poured LN from the dewar into an easy target (we used a plastic mixing bowl), and from that into the thermoses. Our dewar was (a) big and (b) didn’t have a dispensing device. Pouring from it into a thermos would have been dangerous; you don’t want to superchill the outside of the thermos. We ended up with a ¾ full stable thermos for each “bartender”.
Things You Actually Do With LN
Nitro-Burning Funny Drinks
Nitro-muddling is by far the coolest thing you can do with LN and alcohol.
If you take a green herb and crush it, it will turn brown and change flavor as enzymes go to work killing it. If you muddle an herb into a drink, those enzymes sap color and flavor from the drink.
If instead you freeze herbs solid, pulverize them into a cold powder, then thaw them in alcohol and citrus juice, those enzymes never get a chance to jank up the aromatics. The effect on the drink is startling: colors are vibrant, flavors are bright.
Nitro-muddling is easy, but there’s a procedure to it, and if you don’t follow that procedure to the letter you (a) might kill someone and (b) will definitely produce crappy drinks. If you’re hell-bent on trying this, the Kindle version of Liquid Intelligence costs something like $15; buy it and read the nitro-muddling section 3 times.
L.I. has four nitro-muddled drinks:
Thai basil, white rum, lime juice, simple syrup, saline.
Everyone seemed to like this drink. A competent daiquiri is hard not to like. We quickly ran out of Thai basil and switched to italian, but Thai basil has a much more interesting flavor and works better in the drink.
Tarragon, mezcal, maraschino, lime, simple syrup, saline.
My first batch of these was renamed “Indiana Tire Fire”. It had an unmistakeable gasoline nose. Not everyone hated them! Tomek’s, using the same spirits, apparently did not have the same problem. Tarragon is my favorite herb and I want to love a drink with tarragon in it, but this was my least favorite.
Parsley, gin, sour orange or lime juice, simple syrup, saline.
A guest favorite, even though this is the point at which I decided “fuck it” and stopped aggressively tea-straining out the herb from the drink, and so produced drinks with little flecks of parsley in them. The juice from these oranges has a vibrant warm color, but it’s overpowered by the color of the parsley.
Mint, aquavit, simple syrup, saline.
My favorite (mint and caraway, what’s not to like?), but probably the drink we made least, because at this point we started goofing around and making shit up.
Operating on the assumption that you can generally take 5-7g of aromatic, 3-4oz of base spirit, 0-2oz mixer, 0-2oz citrus and 1-2oz sweetener and end up with something drinkable (you dial in the ratios on the second batch), we nitro-muddled fruit, citrus zest, random herbs, and whatever Tomek was doing at his station. Two notable results (other than “etrog citron peel doesn’t nitro-muddle into a great drink”):
The Vomegranate (I didn’t name it)
Pomegranate, vodka, St Germain, sour orange
Vividly pink, sweet, tasted like pomegranates. Nobody I talked to hated it, and it wasn’t green, which was a win later in the evening. If you were That Kind Of Fussy, you could use this and the next drink to keep the room multicolored. St. Germain is sometimes called “bartender’s ketchup”; a spirit mixed with St. Germain and any other flavoring is going to produce something drinkable even if the underlying recipe is crappy. My point being, there’s a tactic you can use to nitro-muddle random stuff into drinks that end up making sense: cover up your mistakes with St. Germain.
Tarted Up Last Word
Equal parts Chartreuse, Maraschino, gin, lime juice, with nitro-muddled edible flowers.
This tasted identical to a Last Word (which is a good thing, because the Last Word is a great drink), but picks up all the color from the flower. If you’re already nitro-muddling drinks anyways, the effect is worth it.
Thai Banana Daiquiri
Thai bananas, rum, lime, simple syrup, saline.
Tomek managed, with a lot of LN, to freeze and powder a single Thai banana. He replaced the Thai Basil from the TBD with the banana, and dialed down the simple syrup. I’m not sure how much it truly benefited from nitro-muddling, but the drink definitely looked and tasted like bananas.
Cocktail Glass Chilling
A very good cocktail bar will serve cocktails in chilled glasses. LN will quickly produce very cold glasses with an attractive frost. All you do is pour a little into the glass, swirl it around, and pour the leftover LN back into the thermos. Tomek adds, “make sure the glass is dry, otherwise the LN freezes any leftover water creating patches of frost that take away from the effect.”
LN-chilled cocktail glasses are superior to normal cocktail glasses and they’re easy. But while Tomek did this all night for his drinks, I never did. Why not? Mostly paranoia. None of our glasses shattered when chilled, but it was always a possibility (although according to Arnold, if one glass of a particular pattern won’t shatter, probably none of them will). Since we were working so closely to our guests, shattering glasses full of LN were an unacceptable risk, and so we chilled them outside, which was a chore.
If we had made better use of our space, occupied the whole kitchen and passed finished drinks across our pass into the dining room, we’d have nitro-chilled all the glasses.
Dave Arnold batch-chills drinks with LN by mixing them in bulk, pouring them into a large plastic mixing bowl, adding LN, and then pouring the drink and the LN back and forth between another mixing bowl.
We didn’t bother doing this:
We used Oxo plastic mixing bowls to get LN from the dewar into the narrow top of our thermoses, and those mixing bowls made horrible cracking noises almost immediately.
Our workspaces weren’t set up for either of us to safely propel LN through the air without endangering guests.
We didn’t plan a drink to chill and serve this way, and so never really had any impetus to do it.
Really, this technique seems to have more to do with saving time than with elevating any one particular drink. If we were doing this kind of thing professionally, rock-and-rolling would probably be important to us. But we are slipshod amateurs, not pro bartenders.
Of Course We Made Ice Cream
We started the evening being stingy with the LN because we didn’t know how long it would last us. But by midnight, it was clear we weren’t going to run out. When I caught Vitaly preparing to freeze a jigger of cream for ice cream, I caved and we made real ice cream.
It turns out that you can make a creditable LN ice cream in about 4 minutes. Don’t judge me for this:
Put a Kitchenaid mixing bowl on a scale
Separate an egg and put the yolk in the bowl, noting the weight.
Zero the scale and add the same weight in sugar.
Zero the scale and add 4 times the weight in cream.
Watch Vitaly dump ¼ of a jar of Luxardo Maraschino syrup into the bowl.
Start the mixer on low until everything is combined.
Drizzle LN into the bowl, which will immediately and impressively fog up like a witch’s cauldron, until the mixer starts to sound like it’s straining against the contents, which it is because those contents are now frozen solid.
I don’t particularly like ice cream and so didn’t try that batch, but a crowd of people formed around the bowl and cleaned it out for me, so apparently it came out O.K., despite that process being a crime against food.
The next evening my daughter and I made two more batches, one with grassy olive oil (which I liked) and one with brown butter (which she liked). This time, we did things by-the-book: we used the same 1:1:4 anglaise ratio, but tempered the yolks and heated the custard until it thickened.
Being able to make any flavored ice cream from a custard base à la minute is a crazy superpower to have at a party. You can batch a hundred servings in ziplocs in a circulator and freeze a just a few servings at a time, each with different flavorings. And that’s just if you want to be efficient about it; really, the only advance planning you need is “having cream and eggs in the house”. Dave Arnold’s LN primer cautions that LN ice cream is not always as amazing as you’d expect, but going from zero to high-quality hard-frozen ice cream in 4 minutes is intrinsically amazing.
If we’d been less nervous about LN safety and about how far we could stretch 20 liters, we’d have started doing ice cream immediately after dinner at the party and kept going all night. Rum ice cream. Peychauds Bitters ice cream. Star anise ice cream. So many ice creams! We should probably do another party just for the ice cream.