An experimental maverick of the mixology scene, Tony Conigliaro creates vibrant, dioramic taste sensations that combine radical methods with eccentric, unexpected ingredients.
Founder of the experimental research consultancy Drink Factory and co-owner of the critically acclaimed London cocktail bars 69 Colebrooke Row and The Zetter Townhouse Cocktail Lounge (ZTH), Tony Conigliaro is scientifically elevating the status of the cocktail.
London is the epicentre of the burgeoning mixology stage, according to Conigliaro. He says: “There is lots going on elsewhere, but the focus is London and has been for a long while. It’s more established than places around the world – even New York. What they do there is amazing but they have a very different way of drinking and a different history – it’s based more on prohibition, whereas London has a cosmopolitan crowd and a multifaceted way of drinking.”
Artistic Start to a Scientific End
Having started his career as a painter, Conigliaro worked in bars to fund his studio. It wasn’t until he worked with the famous French chef Bruno Loubet 12 years ago at the Italian restaurant Isola in London’s Knightsbridge that he really became interested in flavour – and particularly why certain flavours work together.
As a self-taught molecular explorer, Conigliaro says: “If you start scratching beyond the surface of why flavours work together you get to a point where you have to start asking things on a scientific level. I had never studied science or physics so for the past ten years I’ve just been asking questions.”
Conigliaro began exploring these questions with the kitchen science approach, experimenting with a still and a centrifuge on his dining-room table.
It has since evolved to become the Drink Factory – a creative hub where Conigliaro and his team of bartenders can concoct and develop new drink concepts for the menus at 69 Colebrooke Row and ZTH. The Drink Factory also offers consultancy services for the big liquor brands, including London-distilled Beefeater Gin.
The Drink Factory is tucked down a quiet side street in London’s trendy Islington. It’s a large, open-plan space with an office, kitchen and lab area full of intriguing ingredients and brown glass bottles.
There is an audible hum of machinery when I drop by – Conor the bartender is keeping a watchful eye on his flask of sweet peppercorn vodka for the evening service. “Play the distiller like a musical instrument,” says Conigliaro, who believes the quicker the distillation the better the flavour.
For Conigliaro a cocktail is not simply a one-dimensional flavour, but a narrative of little moments suspended in time. “We tend to work in little theatre sets and dioramas. I always draw my drink ideas out first and then create the story through the flavours of the cocktail,” says Conigliaro.
The narrative can also be a setting – The Silver Mountain cocktail contains the delicate Japanese spirit Kigo Shochu and the drink is actually based on the picturesque stream found behind the spirit’s distillery on the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The edible garnish symbolises the fallen leaves floating on the surface of the water – which Conigliaro says represents the passage of time. The third dimension of the setting is a cassis bud giving an acidic, fruity taste – to represent the stones and vegetation found around the stream.
The La Rose cocktail is another example. A rose crystal is dropped into a glass of champagne allowing the rose flavour to intensify and bloom – much like the English garden it represents – as the crystal effervesces and dissolves in the champagne.
Drinks Not Novelty
Although Conigliaro’s work is packed with scientific flair there is a refreshing lack of gimmicky theatrics – the science is kept separate from the bar itself. “Bars are about hosting.
I don’t want to go into a bar and see a still, I want to see my friends and have good conversation and good product,” explains Conigliaro. He goes on to say: “The drinks have to stand for themselves, if you have to justify the drink, you’re like a used car salesman – if someone’s selling a Ferrari, they don’t justify it – they just sell it and you want it because its good.” Conigliaro uses technology to excel his craft.
The extreme attention to detail, flavour and presentation are evident in the phenomenal quality of the drinks Conigliaro serves to his customers. Take the classic Dirty Martini made using only gin, vermouth and olive juice – the salty water the olives are preserved in. Conigliaro’s tweaked version uses pure olive water, which he separates from the flesh of the olive using a centrifuge – and the result is an intense and smooth olive taste.
Conigliaro’s Bloody Mary is also unlike any other – using only homemade ingredients, it contains vodka infused with spicy horseradish that’s distilled at the Drink Factory, along with pepper sauce, pepper distillate, celery salt and tomato juice – making this famed hangover cure a cut above the rest. Even the Worcestershire sauce is made in-house.
Conigliaro was honing his craft long before mixology became the global trend that it is today. “We were just ploughing away and then all of a sudden other people were doing it,” says Conigliaro. And this, he says, is having a positive effect: “The drinks companies now understand the power of the bartender. Now they’re saying ‘please take our product and show us what you want to do with it’ – they have really opened up and upped their game.”
This global recognition is also seeding cross-disciplinary collaborations – something Conigliaro feels is key to developing your craft. He says: “If you just stay within your discipline you tend to just repeat stuff – you have to get outside and make things a bit more polymorphic.”
Of working with American food scientist Harold McGee and New York-based food technician scientist David Arnold, Conigliaro says: “It’s a lot of fun because you’re talking to people who bring something new to the table because they really understand what they’re talking about.”
The collaborations don’t stop there. “We work with designers and they bring something completely different because they have an eye for what something should look like,” says Conigliaro. A notable example is the collaboration with Roland Mouret to create the Grey Goose Roland Mouret Miracle cocktail to accompany Mouret’s Origami Bar. Conigliaro made a set of flavours and Mouret designed the garnish, an origami pleat – a synonymous aesthetic in his fashion designs. The pleated garnish transforms into a fan that’s loaded with aroma giving the cocktail another sensory dimension.
Aroma, Flavour and Effect
Known for exploring obscure ingredients, the Drink Factory’s latest foray is minerals. Minerals don’t provide flavour or aroma but an effect, as Conigliaro explains: “Minerals can really influence how you taste and smell things. If you put a copper coin in your mouth you can’t taste the copper, it’s an effect – the copper molecules are too big to taste.”
“You have mineral flavours in mineral water and also in wine, and these come from the stones that are either by the side of the vines or underneath the ground. The mineral flavour permeates the plant, which then flavours the grape,” claims Conigliaro. The Drink Factory is currently experimenting with Flintstone. “We smash it into pieces to get all of the spark notes, then we grind it down, distil it off and add it to the sweet peppercorn vodka,” says Conigliaro. The team is also flirting with gunpowder, but Conigliaro admits that everyone is a little bit scared of experimenting with that ingredient.
Gimmick Free. Conigliaro’s scientific approach is not an afterthought; it’s the basis of his craft. It is not designed as a theatrical seduction technique for the customer and Conigliaro refuses to compromise quality for novelty. Consider exploring new techniques to make your craft the best it can be and don’t play smoke and mirrors with your customers because they will ultimately want quality once the novelty has worn off.
A Sensory Narrative. Approaching his drinks like an illustrated story, Conigliaro builds cocktails that act as a representation of the physical world through flavour. Each ingredient has a specific role in creating the story. This personal approach gives his cocktails a unique starting point and therefore a more meaningful end.
Collaborate to Develop. “You have to get outside and make it a bit more polymorphic and bring fresh ideas in, that’s how things self perpetuate,” says Conigliaro, who understands the importance of stepping outside your discipline. The Drink Factory exchange ideas with food scientists, designers, chefs and perfumers and each discipline brings new opportunities. The key is asking questions and building up a network of people to bounce ideas off, exchange with and learn from. Conigliaro has his network and they connect via Facebook – opportunities no longer lie in your hometown, but globally.