Deep in New York's Chinatown is a storefront made nearly invisible by crafty urban camouflage. The sign says that the place is an interior design shop, which is inaccurate, but it doesn't matter because a cage of scaffolding obstructs the words. Adjacent signage is in Chinese. Even the address is a misdirect, the number affixed to a door leading to upstairs apartments. If you weren't looking for this place, your eye would skate right past it.
But if you have an appointment and can figure out that address-number brainteaser, you might notice a scrap of writing on a piece of paper taped into the window at about waist-level. It says booker and dax.
A savvy New Yorker would know that Booker and Dax is the name of a homey, brick-walled bar on the Lower East Side, about twenty blocks north of here. Drinkers revere the place—it is, arguably, one of the most scientific drinking establishments in the world. Cocktails at Booker and Dax aren't poured so much as engineered, clarified with specialized enzymes and assembled from lab equipment, remixed from classic recipes to more exacting standards by a booze sorcerer named Dave Arnold.
The Chinatown storefront is the sorcerer's workshop.
Trained as a sculptor at Columbia University, former director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, technologist behind some of the world's most experimental chefs, host of a popular radio show and blog on cooking techniques, Arnold is more than anything an inventor??—??of gadgets and devices, yes, but also of cocktails. He makes familiar drinks taste better than you'd believe, and crazy drinks that taste fantastic.
Stocky, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair, Arnold is talking from the instant he comes through the door. He squirts himself a glass of sparkling water, carbonated via the workshop's built-in CO2 line to his exact specifications—he likes bubbles of a particular size—and starts running through a bunch of projects. The sorcerer is in.
The workshop is narrow, maybe twenty feet wide, and the basement is wired for 220 volts and full of power tools. On the main level, a whiteboard covered in project notes and a drying rack for laboratory glassware dominate one wall. The other is all shelves, books on the right and then bottles of booze. Arnold recycles bottles to hold whatever he's working on; ribbons of blue tape affixed over the original label say what's really in them. For example, a square-shouldered Beefeater gin bottle is half-full of brown liquid instead of clear, a dissonant image for anyone who has spent significant time staring at the back shelves of bars. Arnold pulls the bottle down and puts it in front of me, alongside a cordial glass. "Only take a little," he says. The handwritten label reads "25% cedar." I pour a half-ounce and take a quarter-ounce sip. It tastes like stewed roof shingle. Arnold watches my face crumble inward, and then snorts a little. He hasn't quite got that one right.
Further to the left, after the bottles, are white plastic tubs and bottles of chemicals. "I don't even know what some of this is," Arnold says. He pulls a tub off the shelf and reads the label. "What the hell is 'Keltrol Advance Performance?'"
Xanthan gum, is what it is—an emulsifier, good at making combinations of liquids and solids stick together and stay creamy. In fact, most of Arnold's chemicals come from one of three classes—thickeners like the Keltrol, enzymes to break down proteins, and fining agents, things to help pull solid ingredients out of liquids. "My standard response to a new fruit or flavor is to clarify and see what happens," Arnold says. Gelatin and isinglass are good for removing tannins; chitosan (made of crustacean shells) and silica can pull solids out of milk. But vegans can't eat chitosan, gelatin, or isinglass—they're all animal products. Arnold would like another option to offer at the bar. Chitosan made from fungal cell walls might get past the vegan barrier but doesn't clarify as well, he says, and neither does the mineral bentonite. Arnold also uses agar sometimes; it comes from seaweed. "I prefer agar clarification to gelatin," he says. "There's a flavor difference. Sometimes it's a benefit and sometimes it's a detriment. Depends on the application."
The point of all this stuff is to bring to bear the most sophisticated chemistry and lab techniques in the service of one singular, perfect moment: the moment when a bartender places a drink in front of a customer and the customer takes a sip.
So, for example, Booker and Dax makes a drink called an Aviator, a riff on a classic pre-Prohibition cocktail called an Aviation—that's gin, lemon, maraschino liqueur, and a bit of crème de violette. Made properly, it has a kind of opalescent, light blue hue and an icy citrus prickle. Arnold's version uses clarified grapefruit and lime and actually manages to improve on the original in terms of intense, gin-botanical-plus-citrus flavors while remaining water-clear. Alcoholic beverages are, in their way, much more complicated than even the most haute of cuisines. This is the kind of insight that drives Booker and Dax. Though Arnold doesn't really cop to that. "I'm not trying to change the way people drink. I'm trying to change the way we make drinks," he says. "I'm not trying to push the customers out of their comfort zone."
Quite the opposite, in fact. Arnold says that all his tinkering and tuning, all the rotary-evaporatory distillation and chitosan fining, is about pushing people into a comfort zone. He's trying to take a rigorous, scientific approach to creating a perfect drinking moment, every time.
That said, while appreciating Arnold's sorcery doesn't require that a customer know the secret to the trick, it helps if the customer at least notices the magic. "Sometimes," Arnold acknowledges, "if a customer doesn't know anything about what we're doing, it can be problematic." In the early days of Booker and Dax, when Arnold was still working behind the bar every night, a guy came in and ordered a vodka and soda. It's arguably the dumbest mixed drink ever invented. In most bars, the bartender fills a tumbler with ice, pours in a shot of cheap vodka—not from the shelves behind the bar but from the "well" beneath it, where the more frequently used house labels are—and then squirts in halfheartedly carbonated water from a plastic gun mounted next to the cash register.
Not at Booker and Dax, though. Arnold thought about it for a moment and told the guy he could make one, but it would take ten minutes, and could the customer please specify exactly how stiff he wanted it? Arnold was going to calculate the dilution factor you'd ordinarily get from ice and soda, titrate vodka and maybe a little clarified lime with still water, and then carbonate the whole thing with the bar CO2 line.
It seems like a lot of trouble in the service of an unappreciative palate. "Why serve it at all?" I ask. "Vodka and soda is a crap drink."
"I think a vodka and soda is a crap drink because it's poorly carbonated," Arnold answers. "If I can make it to the level of carbonation I like, it won't be crap. I will not serve a cocktail that will make me sad."
I push the point. "But the customer wants a crummy vodka and soda, with soda from a gun, because that's what he's used to."
"Look, it's not our place to judge people's taste preferences. But I won't serve you crap." Arnold pauses for a moment, sips at his house-carbonated water. "I've never had someone not like the better version."
I've had perfect bar moments. They're what led to this book. Here's one: I was supposed to meet a friend for an after-work drink on a swamp-sticky Washington, D.C., summer day, and I was late. I rushed across town to get to the bar and showed up a mess, the armpits of my shirt wet, hair stuck to my forehead.
The bar, though, was cool and dry—not just air-conditioner cool, but cool like they were piping in an evening from late autumn. The sun hadn't set, but inside, the dark wood paneling managed to evoke 10 p.m. In a good bar, it is always 10 p.m.
I asked for a beer; I don't remember which one. The bartender nodded, and time slowed down. He put a square napkin in front of me, grabbed a pint glass, and went to the taps. He pulled a lever, and beer streamed out of a spigot. The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.
Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction—a guy walks into a bar, right?—but it is the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history. It happens thousands of times a day around the world, maybe millions, yet it is the culmination of human achievement, of human science and apprehension of the natural and technical world. Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture—to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically. The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It's the apotheosis of human life on earth. It's a miracle.