Molecular Mixology: Spectacular or Just Plain Spectacle?

National trends have a way of slowly making their way to the First Coast. Whether the cause of our city’s laggardness in embracing new concepts and ideas is geographic in nature or simply the result of stubborn Southern resistance, we’re always at least a few years behind the curve.

This dawdling doesn’t prevent the more determined among us from doing our damnedest to drag the city kicking and screaming into the present. Case in point: Jess DuPont, bar manager of Element Bistro & Craft Bar, and her ambitious plan to bring molecular mixology to Downtown Jacksonville.

Molecular mixology uses the ideas and techniques of molecular gastronomy and applies them to the construction of cocktails, in many ways challenging preconceived notions of what a cocktail should be. Most notably, the concept plays with the physical state of one or more components of a drink through techniques such as spherification, which turns liquids into gelatinous spheres commonly referred to as “caviar” (think something akin to the tapioca pearls in bubble/boba tea, except made from syrups, liqueurs or other ingredients). Other science-y methods include thickening liquids with xanthan gum to suspend garnishes in the beverage or emulsifying liquids into foams using soy lecithin. To say the least, it’s all quite theatrical.

After years spent working in high-volume nightclub environments, DuPont is excited about the idea of combining 26 years of bartending experience with her degree in studio arts to be at the forefront of something new. “I fancy myself as pretty creative, so to have that outlet at my workplace is really appealing,” she explains.

To get the ball rolling, DuPont has been testing her recipes on willing patrons by way of a special weekend menu that showcases her creations. The intention is to add three or four of them to the new permanent menu set to drop in a couple weeks. Two involve adding panache to classic recipes by way of the aforementioned “caviar,” while the third includes pouring prosecco over a ball of cotton candy, dissolving it into something resembling fizzy sno-cone syrup. A fourth recipe still in development sounds the most intriguing. DuPont is working on creating a solidified, edible mojito through a process called reverse spherification. And she plans to introduce hot infusion cocktails, utilizing a setup that looks straight out of a chemistry lab—complete with Bunsen burner and siphon.

Happy to lead the charge, DuPont theorizes on why Jacksonville’s more established craft bars are reluctant to venture into this uncharted territory. “They’ve found their niche and it’s been successful for them, so they’re sticking to what works,” she says. “It will happen soon enough, though, because there’s one thing all craft bartenders have in common–they’re always curious.”

To test this theory and get a better understanding of the perspective of the bartending world at large, I walk across Downtown to The Volstead, home of Jacksonville’s premier bartender competition. Bartenders Brawl events feature some the area’s most creative bartenders digging deep into their bag of tricks to one-up each other at quarterly face-offs.

There I run into resident bartender Christopher Shinn, whom I’ve personally observed chug warm beer from a dirty shoe on multiple occasions, so I know he knows what he’s talking about. I’m expecting an audible scoff at the drop of the term “mixology,” which has become a bit of a dirty word among industry insiders, so his response is rather surprising. “It’s actually something I’m really into right now,” he says.

In retrospect, I should’ve known. Shinn is the kind of bartender who’s more than happy to breathe fire at a guest’s request, and he’s certainly not one to shy away from putting himself out there and taking some risks.

“Really, it’s what we’re doing all the time,” he explains. “Trying to create new flavors with drinks.” Lately, Shinn has been paying close attention to the Aviary, the Chicago cocktail bar concept of famed molecular gastronomist Grant Achatz. Blurring the lines between food and drink seems to most inspire Shinn, who’s been incorporating elements of molecular mixology during “gypsy” shifts at other bars. Free from the normal constraints of day-to-day service, these one-night-only events provide a platform for creative bartenders to wow guests with things that would be impossible day-in and day-out. “There’s nothing cooler than when’s someone’s, like, ‘Oh, shit!’” he says.

The attention required to pull off such sorcery is the primary obstacle preventing the trend from penetrating the local scene. “It’s got its place, for sure, but when people try to implement it into their bar program, it can get messy,” explains Shinn. “To do it right, it would have to be your thing. It would have to be that type of bar.”

Which begs the question–is Jacksonville even ready for such a thing? As far as a dedicated molecular mixology bar goes, the answer is, “Not likely.” That said, you can already imagine the glittering, hyperbolic Yelp reviews marveling over what amounts to a run-of-the-mill cocktail with some colorful, gooey balls in it. As for me, I’ll just have a Tecate.