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The cat is dead…or is it?

By 1st Principles Distilleries Spokesperson

(20 Minute Read)

Few cats have quite been the victim of creative marketing guff as often as Schrödinger’s cat during the past decade. Consistently making appearances in talks, advertising campaigns, memes, academic papers, scientific experiments, quantum mechanics and broadcast media, it would seem that we just can’t get enough of this elusive feline.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this article has been misplaced or misprinted, but rest assured you are at the right place. It is about cocktails and, you may, or may not (pun intended), find the comparison between Schrödinger’s cat and cocktails quite interesting indeed.

But first, why all the fuss about Schrödinger and his cat? Erwin Schrödinger was a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian-Irish physicist. He developed a number of fundamental results in quantum theory which was known as the Schrödinger Equation. It provided a way to calculate the wave function of a system and how it changes dynamically in time, well that’s the smart way of putting it.

TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE – THAT IS THE QUESTION

For all other non-physicists, there is a shorter and somewhat simplified way of explaining Schrödinger’s cat. It basically goes like this:

Imagine a cat in a wicker basket with a vile of poison. If the cat    moves and the vile falls over, it releases the poison and the cat will die. But if the cat sits quietly and doesn’t disturb the vile, the cat will be alive. So, technically speaking, while the basket is closed to the outside world, the cat is neither dead, nor alive. Schrodinger argued that, for that period, the cat doesn’t exist at all.[1]

Here comes the kicker; while the basket remains shut, the cat is in a state of non-existence, but the moment we open the basket and we observe the cat, it would either be dead or alive. Our observation brings the animal into a state of being, namely dead or alive. If we see it’s alive, it is, if not, then not. I know, mind-numbing right?

Fear not, this is as far as we will explore the theoretical! What in the name of a refreshing Gin-and-Tonic has this got to do with making, appreciating or drinking cocktails you may ask?

AN AWAKENING OF THE SENSES

To truly appreciate cocktails and the artistry involved in creating craft spirits, is to allow yourself to be swept away with a barrage of the senses. The entire fusillade of smell, sight, taste and even auditory delights, think of the gurgling sound of a fizzy mixer poured over fresh blocks of ice, or the clanging noise of a concoction swirled around in a cocktail shaker. Just think of the grinding noise of coffee beans being grinded down, right there you should already have smelled the roasted beans in your mind – so powerful is our sense of smell.

The hypotheses, I put forward in this article, is that much like Schrödinger’s cat, enhancing cocktails comes down to the fine art of mastering the delicate interplay between prominence and subtlety – finding the essence and balance in each cocktail we create – not too overpowering and certainly not too weak, but just right. Let’s call it the mixologist’s Utopia!

But surely this can only be achieved if we share a universal set of sensory experiences, language and associations? Sadly, as it turns out, this is not the case at all; beauty, aesthetic appeal and taste are all in fact in the eyes (or tongue, or ears) of the beholder.

TASTING AND SMELLING – AND THE WINNER IS…

Much like Schrödinger’s cat, our abilities to use our senses are at best questionable. Did I taste anything at all, or not? Did we even taste the same thing? How about smell? Is my olfactory experience of something like a strawberry or a jasmine blossom similar to yours, or not?

Turns out that it is actually very difficult to reach an agreement amongst ourselves on exactly how things taste and smell. Not to be confused with our understanding of specific basic tastes, aromas, smells and flavours such as sweet, bitter, sour or the particular smell like citrus; in that sense we agree to some degree.

The tangible difference in our points of view become evident when, for example, you open a good quality bottle of red wine and hand out a few glasses to different people – don’t expect a unified summary of what it tastes like, not even a remote similarity. Chances are you are likely to get an equal amount of different answers.

A study entitled The Colour of Odours[1] will obliterate your faith in anyone’s ability to taste anything. Three French researchers started with two wines, a white and a red. A group tasted both the white and red wine under white light in clear glasses. The subjects were asked to write down all the words they can think of to describe each of the wines. The researchers didn’t care if the tasters agreed with each other about the wine colour and taste, just that each tester consistently calls one red and one white.

Then the researchers took an odourless tasteless extract of the grape skin pigment and dripped it into the white wine turning it red. They called the tasters back for a second time asking them to compare the white and coloured wine, the same wine in other words. The result was a taste test catastrophe. The tasters chose to use the same words for the white wine from the initial tasting on the white wine on the 2nd and they used the same words for the red wine on the red coloured white wine. They simply could not tell the difference. Colour alone, not aroma, not flavour told them what to expect and that’s exactly what they tested.

But what about experts at nice restaurants? Professionals that walk you through a wine list. Surely the sommeliers must have a more highly developed palate. As expected, more training meant more descriptors that one could call to mind describing the aromas, but in terms of blind identification, of what the researchers call wine relevant odorants, the sommeliers didn’t do any better than the novices.

The tongue is covered in taste cells, so when taking a sip of wine, for example, we are in fact tasting a lot. Our taste buds are onion shaped structures, with receptor molecules stacked on top of them. It’s these receptor molecules that tell the brain, through a complex internal process involving neurotransmitters, that it’s tasting something.

The receptors in the mouth are polymodal nociceptors, which basically means they sense a lot of different things like pain, temperature extremes, chemical irritants. They are not taste buds, they function by means of the trigeminal nerve that runs around the orbit of the eye past the sinuses and into the jaw and tongue. This simply means that complex smells are effectively tested in the nose, and flavour is a combination of taste and smell.

You sniff a flower, or food cooking on the stove via orthonasal olfaction, meaning the aroma goes into your nostrils and up your nose. The action of chewing, swallowing and breathing, while you eat, sends molecules up through the back of your throat and into the sinus that’s called retronasal olfaction. Some researchers believe if you don’t chew and swallow, you’re limiting your taste perception.

Every other sense in the body is in a way indirect. In vision, light impinges on the retina, a sheet of cells at the back of the eye that makes pigments and connects to the optic nerve. In hearing, sound (which is really just waves changing air pressure) pushes the eardrum in and out of particular frequencies, which translates via a series of tiny bones connected to nerves. Touch and taste are the same. A stimulus is intercepted and processed, leading to a specific sensation.

Not smell though; when we smell something we are smelling tiny pieces of their thing that have broken off, wafted through the air, and then touched the actual neurons wired to the actual pieces of the brain. Olfaction is direct, with nothing between the thing we’re smelling, the smell it has, and how we perceive that smell. It’s our most intimate sense. When you bring a glass of wine to your nose and mouth you smell the air in the headspace, wine particles jump onto your olfactory epithelium.

The vast mystery of how to make a great bottle of wine or a delicious cocktail that appeals not just to the maker but the audience, and how to repeat such a marvellous feat, is what propels the business and the art, the skills and the technique. Add the emotional context to the post digestive effects of alcohol, and the changes it actually makes in the brain itself, we can quickly see why our enjoyment of drinks may have little to do with how we actually taste drinks.

So, if it’s not necessarily taste, what is it then?

SEEING IS BELIEVING!

It seems, considering all of the above findings, that we are led to an undeniable truth – we eat, drink and experience through all our senses. While we may be of different minds as to what something tastes like, research shows that we do agree that if something looks good, it usually tastes good too!

According to mixologist and Master of the Cocktail, David. A. Embury, a cocktail is not simply defined by a single sentence but rather by a number of attributes and characteristics. In similar fashion, creating a perfect cocktail isn’t a single recipe, method, ingredient or garnish, but a symphony of skills and attributes, used in perfect harmony, which leads to the creation of a superior tasting experience.

As skilled foodies, entertainers, connoisseurs and cocktail wizards, we need to ensure we keep a close eye, and hand, on all the elements that we can employ and apply in our favour to create that elusive tasting experience. But what exactly are we talking about here?

THE IMPORTANCE OF A BASE LINE

With his well-known and appreciated humour, Embury explains that one of the important components of the cocktails is the base. The base is the principal ingredient and is usually a single spirit such as gin, rum, whiskey, or vodka and makes up 75% or more of the total volume of the drink before ice.

In another of his successful books, The Art of Mixing Drinks, Embury claims that a cocktail must have a base which he defines as “…a fundamental and distinguishing ingredient of the cocktail and must always comprise more than 50 percent of the entire volume…”.

Many of these bases are craft spirits and understanding each of them is a crucial first step toward creating a great cocktail. Eric Grossman’s useful book Craft Spirits gives us an in-depth understanding of each of these base spirits:

Vodka

Vodka is a clean spirit with subtle characteristics ranging from herbal and grassy to sweet and spicy. Originally made in Poland and Russia and produced from grains or potatoes, new conventions are turning the spirit on its head by distilling grapes, honey whey and many more. It provides a blank canvas for experimentation with infusions and a variety of cocktails.

Gin

Gin is the most full flavoured of all clear spirits. It is distilled with flavours, and it has a distinctive taste that comes from traditional botanicals such as juniper berries, citrus peel, and coriander. Modern day distillers make use of some of the most complex botanicals available and are producing a variety of flavours and tastes.

Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye

Whisky begins life as grains that are processed into beer-like slush and then distilled into a spirit. To get the finished product, the spirit is aged in wooden barrels. A host of factors such as location, type of grains and barrels determines whether it becomes a Scotch, single or blended malt, bourbon, or rye.

Rum

Rum is distilled from sugarcane by-products such as molasses. It can also be distilled directly from sugar cane juice. Naturally sweet and clear, most rum is aged. The longer it ages the darker in colour and the more expressive it can become.

Brandy / Cognac

Brandy is made by distilling rudimentary fruit wine. Most brandies are aged in wooden barrels, sometimes with added colours and flavours. Brandies, Cognacs and Armagnacs were once thought of as after-dinner drinks, but new processes and methods are using unusual fruit bases and applying artisanal techniques to come up with new varieties and blends.

Agave Spirits

The Agave spirits, tequila, and its cousins mezcal, sotol, raicilla and bacanora are all distilled from desert plants in Mexico. These spirits convey a sense of place, and they are becoming increasingly more popular all over the world.

Absinthe

Spirits, ingredients, flavours, and techniques vary all over the world. With quick shipping and transportation available today, we can enjoy liquors from every corner of the globe. Vermouth is a key component of classic cocktails, and they are currently being created with such quality that they can be enjoyed neat. Absinthe is in demand and being enjoyed all over the world by bartenders seeking something new and creative to serve and mix in cocktails.

Now that we have a good understanding of base liquors and their appeal to our senses in terms of colour, depth and taste, we can look at the next component; the glass.

WHAT’S IN A GLASS?

There are only a limited number of tricks of the trade in our arsenal that help us get the most out of our cocktail-making endeavours that can elevate our tasting experience. One of them is selecting the right glass. Make sure your glass is washed properly and not used straight from the dishwasher, as a warmer glass might heat up the liquid and alter the taste experience.

Here are a number of cocktail glasses and a few important details pertaining to each:

Martini glass

The Martini Glass

This glass exudes elegance and is perfect for stirred drinks without ice. The sloped sides improves the aesthetic and prevents the contents from separating. The long stem keeps the contents chilled.
old fashioned rocks glass

The Double Old Fashioned / Rocks Glass

This glass is used for drinks mixed inside the glass rather than a shaker. The wide mouth is perfect for garnishes and the sturdy bottom makes it easier to muddle the contents.

coupe glass

Coupe Glass

This glass is historically used for sipping champagne and the wide brim is best suited for fragrant cold cocktails. The elegant stem makes it easier to hold than the Martini glass. It is also less top heavy and less prone to spill its contents.
collins high ball glass

Collins / Highball Glass

This glass is for drinks containing large proportions of non-alcoholic mixers. The tall Collins glass is perfect for drinks that need to be served super-cold with ice.

SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED

Memorable cocktails can find their way down our gullets in a range of pleasurable ways, all depending on how well they have been made, here we are specifically referring to the technique or methods used to make the drink. Many of the ingredients used in your cocktails need to be combined in very specific ways to ensure a desired taste, aroma or flavour. In some cases, we may even claim that scientific factors such as diffusion, chemistry and gravitation become part of the process (and here we were all thinking pouring a drink was just that, pouring).

Some of the most important methods include the following:

The Building Method

In this method the cocktail is made by pouring the ingredients, one by one, into the glass in which the cocktail is to be served, and then stirred. If the recipe calls for it, ice is usually added first, followed by the ingredients or the different components. Examples include Highballs, Rickeys, Swizzles, Hot drinks and many more are all made by this building method cocktail.

The Stirring Method

This method involves, firstly, pouring all the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, then stirring it quickly and finally straining the liquid into the correct glass.

Drinks made from clear liquids, such as craft spirits, liqueurs, wines, and effervescent drinks are always stirred. It is done very quickly to minimize dilution by using a stirrer.

The Shaking Method

This method is used for drinks where a number of ingredients need to be mixed thoroughly with ice. The contents is poured into a cocktail shaker with ice, shaken, and then strained in the correct glass.

The shaking method is mainly used with ingredients such as cream, eggs, fruit juices, sugar syrup and so forth. Carbonated drinks should never be shaken, no matter how tempting!

The Blending Method

This method is used mainly to combine fruits, solid foods, ice and so forth in an electric blender. As a rule, any drink made by using the shaking method, can be blended.

If you puree fruit, you should only add ice afterwards according to its texture, if you add too much ice it will dilute the drink and affect the flavour and taste.

The Layering Method

This method is ideal when creating a drink using ingredients with different colours and flavours. Ingredients are floated on top of the other by gently pouring it into a small straight-sided glass over the back of a spoon.

Ingredients can be spirits, liqueurs, syrups and bitters. Syrups tend to be heavier than liqueurs due to the sugar that adds to their density. As a rule, the lower the proof, the higher the sugar content, the greater the density.

While you may feel the urge to start tossing bottles through the air and catching them elegantly behind your back like Tom Cruise in the 1988 box-office hit Cocktails, there’s still a bit more to the art of making impressive cocktails. In the next section we take a look at the fine art of garnishing your favourite cocktails.

GARNISHING, THE ART OF LESS

Clinically defined, cocktail garnishes are decorative ornaments that add character to cocktails by complementing and enhancing the flavours, taste, colour balance or by creating a special aroma by stimulating the special nerve cells in the nose and mouth.

From a more humane perspective, garnishes make your drinks look pretty! It makes them more pleasurable in a variety of ways, and most importantly, it’s the one opportunity to add your personal touch, a unique taste preference, and flavours.

As far as social norms in bars and pubs go, there are six main cocktail garnishes, and any reputable establishment will stock at least three of them. They are Maraschino cherries, stuffed olives, lime wedges, lemon wedges, orange slices and whipped cream.

Technically speaking you could use almost anything to improve your cocktail to add a flavour boost, but staying true to what is more or less considered to be in line with tradition and custom, is staying true to the art of cocktail making.

Here follows a selection of popular garnishes and how best to use them for optimal results:

Citrus – always use it fresh and never the pith. Squirt a few drops on the surface or rub the rind (peel) on the rim of your glass to let the smell and taste linger.

Juice – juices are always better fresh but try to preserve the best of the winter harvest in your syrups. Orange juice is what is referred to as a sensitive juice and is best when used within one hour of being squeezed. Incorporate the peels when you decide to make a syrup as it gives it a Limoncello like lift.

Ginger Juice – is the perfect juice to give most cocktails a lift. To make you use 1-part fresh ginger (chopped) added to 1-part boiling water and 1-part sugar. Blend and strain. Add a few drops to your 1st Principles Honeybush Gin and Tonic. Be ready to be amazed!

Lemongrass and Mint – an ideal plant to cover that hideous corner in your garden where nothing wants to grow and will give you a source of endless bursts of flavour to lift your cocktails, or tea or fruit juice for that matter.

Tomato Juice – this is the exception to the “fresh juice” rule. For your Bloody Mary only blend the best canned tomatoes you can find. Tomatoes get better when coaxed with a little bit of heat. This adds colour and flavour.

Bicarbonate (Soda) Water – should also be made with a home-based system, if possible, to limit plastic waste or even worse a flat drink. Bicarbonate water is the most underrated garnish on the block!

Tonic water – how about making your own unique tonic water blend with our unique 1st Principles Cinchona bark. Never smother your G&T with tonic. The ideal ratio is 1 tot tonic syrup, 2 tots gin and 3 tots’ soda with a fresh lime squeezed wedge, simply dropped into your G&T.

Sugar –the heyday of the cocktail era was before the refined sugar era we know today. Make your simple syrup by using a 1 to 1 sugar to water mixing ratio. Use treacle sugar if possible and see your whisky and brandy cocktail take on a new personality.

Spices – don’t be shy to raid your spice rack – it is a treasure trove of flavours and aromas, and it can transform an ordinary drink into something truly unique.

INFUSEMENT – SWEETS FOR MY SWEET, SUGAR FOR MY HONEY

Infusement is the process of adding a specific type of botanical to a base liquid and to let it stay submerged in it for a fixed period time, usually long enough to allow for the base liquid to have been flavoured with the taste of the botanical in question. Infusement is a technique applied to craft spirits of which gin responds the best of all to the process.

Below is a useful list of well-known botanicals including their suggested infusing times:

A single star anise seed pod.

Star Anise – a visually stunning infusion and creates a liquorice flavour. Infuse 50 gr star anise into 750 ml gin for 2 to 3 days. Enhance the flavour by adding 1 tablespoon of whole cardamom pods to the mix.

Freshly plucked blueberries in abundance.

Blueberries – sweeten your gin by infusing it with cooked blueberries. Cook 100 gr of blueberries over low heat for a few minutes until they release their juice and add it to 750 ml gin for 1 to 2 weeks. You can add fresh mint or citrus to offset the sweetness of the berries.

Lavender with bright purple buds.

Lavender – infuse gin with Lavender for an extra floral and aromatic expression. Add 1.5 tsp dried culinary Lavender to 750 ml gin for 1 to 2 days. A lemon peel can help to temper the floral notes.

Grapefruit that is cut in two halves.

Grapefruit – Fresh grapefruit adds a pleasingly tart note to any gin. Take 1 medium grapefruit and cut it into chunks and add to 750 ml gin for 3 to 5 days. You can add the peel of a lime or a small chunk of fresh lemongrass.

Infuse homemade gin with fresh botanicals.

RosemaryFresh Rosemary helps to heighten the savoury elements in your gin. Take 2 to 3 Rosemary sprigs and add it to 750 ml gin for 3 to 5 days. You can add a small, sliced cucumber to combine perfectly with tonic.

BITTERSWEET BALANCE

The last part of our story is all about balance. Bitters and syrups are to cocktails what salt and pepper are to food. They may not necessarily be core ingredients, but they certainly bring complexity to flavours, and enhance the sweet and bitter notes we are trying to create in our cocktails, a little bit like magic potions if you wish.

We can divide bitters into two main categories namely classic and craft bitters.

Bitters are basically highly concentrated extracts from botanicals such as herbs, flowers, roots, trees, fruits and so forth. Classic bitters enhance flavours and tempers the sharpness of certain spirits. The two most common bitters are Peychaud’smade in the US and Angostura made in Venezuela.

Craft bitters are a kaleidoscope of variation and creativity and can be made from a variety of elements. Here are some of the more interesting craft bitters:

Spicy Bitters – spicy bitters feature various three flavours including chilli and black pepper. For example, spice chocolate bitters add depth to a White Russian. Chilli bitters at a kick to any vegetable drinks and works with tequila.

Herbal Bitters – herbal bitters encompass classic herbs and Asian influenced galangal with makrut lime. For example, mint bitters can enhance a mojito or Rum and Ginger. Coriander bitters transform and Mai Tai or gin cocktail.

Fruity Bitters – fruity bitters are the widest range from sweet tart rhubarb to citrus and berry. For example, citrus work in light, freshen, vodka, or tequila drinks. Cherry bitters add sweetness to whiskey-based cocktails.

Vegetal Bitters – vegetal bitters such as celery, cucumber, or bell pepper, add balance to sweet cocktails. Improve your Bloody Mary cocktail or a gin and tonic with a couple of dashes of celery bitters.

1st Principles’s latest addition to their list of exciting cocktail products is their unique Gin and Craft Tonic DIY kit. This kit comprises a selection of craft gins, a vile of Cinchona bark and a number of other elements needed to create your signature Gin and Tonic. You can order your own kit here.

Gin and Tonic diy kit

For the more adventurous mixologist in us, you can also experiment with gentian roots to create a home grown Negroni. The beautiful colour and subtle bitterness is the stuff dream cocktails are made of! Described by many as a culinary adventure gentian root has a dusty, bittersweet scent and flavour which could be described as fresh soil, dandelion, citrus pith, anise, tarragon, and acetone with the earthy mustiness of root herbs

Whether you add something sweet, sour or bitter to your cocktail is materially a personal decision. There seems to be consensus, however, that balancing your flavour profile can come down to something as small as a dash of lime or bitters to transform your drink into a masterpiece or should that be a symphony?

CLOSING REMARKS

Enhancing the fullness of the cocktail experience, it should be evident by now, is far more than mixing spirits and finishing it off with a lime wedge. It involves a number of important elements to be combined in a symphonic order; but, as a last word on the matter, we should always remember that; simplicity drives complexity. The perfect cocktail is not the most extravagant, isn’t overpowered by technique, doesn’t look or taste like a fruit salad, but instead, is made up of elements that have been carefully added, one element at a time.

It’s easy to get carried away and get bogged down in the details and become super technical or even critical. In the end cocktails are there to be enjoyed; they represent a fun day next to the pool or an evening with friends. We can truly give each drink its own spin and make it anyway we want to, as long as we have fun and enjoy trying out new things. What matters is that for a few minutes or hours, we can let our hair down and not worry about all the things that consume us each day.

The mystery surrounding Schrödinger’s cat is all about observation; once we see we know, and while we don’t see, we just don’t know. Is this not the essence of all our efforts to make the perfect cocktail? That, like Schrödinger’s cat, hovers between the plains of existence and non-existence, we experience that making the perfect cocktail comes down to how well we can find the subtle poise between technique and spontaneity.

Follow the trail, or blaze your own one – maybe you will like it, maybe you won’t…

Bookmark this article so you can always refer back on new ways to garnish your drink.

1st Principles Distilleries Logo on transparent background

1st Principles Distillery are the creators of some of the world’s finest hand-crafted spirits and are located in the picturesque and fertile Olifant’s River Valley in the town of Vredendal.

Owner and founder Joubert Roux is well-known for producing authentic products with a longstanding heritage, full of personality and founded on 1st Principles.

Keeping within the crafting traditions, 1st Principles produces ingredients on-site, and where possible, use locally sourced botanicals.
With an extensive online range of handcrafted spirits, cocktail mixers, natural ingredients and paraphernalia, 1stPrinciples Distilleries are the specialists for all your handcrafted cocktail supplies.
For more information, to book a tasting experience call us on +27 (0)27 213 2431 or send a WhatsApp to +27 (0)76 132 5614 or send us an email to [email protected]

Photo of cat by Himanshu Choudhary on Unsplash

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