The first-ever Chicago Cocktail Summit, which took place recently at the Logan Theatre, offered so much information that my head’s still spinning (the drinks that accompanied each session probably contributed). It lasted two days: Sunday was devoted to home mixology, while Monday was aimed at bar and restaurant professionals. Each day was made up of four session blocks of several one-hour talks, with the starting times staggered so that you could stay for part of one lecture and then pop into another. (I’m not sure that’s what the organizers intended, but it’s how I approached it.)
Even so, I couldn’t get to everything, and I’m still wondering what I missed in the sessions on creating cocktails with eggs, making punch, and food and cocktail pairing. I took notes on what I did learn, though— and I was even able to decipher some of them. Below is a list of the most interesting things I heard over the course of the Cocktail Summit. (Other than the first item, I haven’t personally fact-checked these factoids.)
1. It’s never too early for Irish coffee, and Bordel makes a seriously dangerous (and delicious) twist on the classic with overproof rum, Grand Marnier, cinnamon, coffee, and cream.
2. If you hold your nose while tasting vanilla extract with salt in it, you only taste the salt. Unplug your nose and suddenly you taste the vanilla because you can smell it. (Everyone in the room, simultaneously experiencing the same thing, said, “Whoa.”)
3. Children can taste three times better than adults—our ability to taste all flavors except bitterness deteriorates as we get older.
4. Distilled water that’s lukewarm gives the impression of sweetness; the same water, when cold, tastes more acidic.
5. Bromelain, an enzyme in pineapple, breaks down protein. Or as presenter Ben Carlotto put it, “It eats meat,” including your tongue—which is why your mouth might sting after eating raw pineapple. People who work at pineapple canneries and allow the juice to run down their legs have had their flesh begin to melt away. Cooking the pineapple, though, disables the bromelain—something to keep in mind next time you’re making piña coladas.
6. It takes 12 years for the Tobala varietal of the agave plant (one of the varietals used to make mescal) to reach full maturity, and there are 20,000 aromatic compounds in the piña (the soft center of the plant) even before it’s roasted—which adds more compounds. That’s where a lot of the flavor complexity of mescal comes from.
7. You can use caper leaves as an edible garnish in cocktails. If you let a leaf sink to the bottom of the drink, it’ll slowly change the salinity of the cocktail over time—which Nandini Khaund, “spirit guide” at Cindy’s, does in a cocktail called Aegean Sea.
8. You can make your own mineral water if you’ve got water salts and a way to carbonate water (without carbonation, the minerals won’t mix into the water). Burton Water Salts has almost exactly the same ratio of minerals as San Pellegrino, so presumably it would make similar-tasting water.
9. There are currently around a thousand craft distillers in the U.S.; according to projections, in five years there will be 2,000. At the same time, a panel of industry professionals predicted that many of the distilleries launching now won’t survive. “We’re going to see a lot of distillery equipment for sale in two years,” one said.
10. We can thank the temperance movement for the rise of home mixology, Imbibe executive editor Paul Clarke explained in his keynote speech: during Prohibition cocktail-making was forced behind closed doors. More recently, though, the Internet has been “where things hit the road for home mixology,” allowing cocktail enthusiasts to easily trade recipes and tips with each other and with professional bartenders.