Move over, butter-poached sous vide filet mignon. The sealed-bag-in-a-water-bath cooking technique can now be used to make your favorite cocktail. Invented in 1799 by American-born British physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson, sous vide was rediscovered in the 1960s by engineers, including Dr. Bruno Goussault, who used it to keep roast beef tender. Cuisine Solutions was launched in 1974, and Goussault went on to become its chief scientist. Since then, chefs including José Andrés, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller have turned to the company to help develop recipes for their restaurant concepts.
And now, with immersion circulators (basically stick heaters that can be inserted into a pot of water to maintain a precise temperature) available for around $100, another group of passionate experimenters are getting their feet wet with sous vide: cocktailians.
The benefit? Consistent results and precise flavor infusions each time, says A.J. Schaller, a culinary specialist at Culinary Research & Education Academy (CREA), Cuisine Solutions’ research arm. In other words, there’s no need for continuous taste-testing to see if the spices in your syrup have steeped long enough or if the fruit macerating in that bottle of vodka have imparted flavor but not bitterness. “It might feel like a trend, but it’s a valuable tool that helps with precise recipes and improves yield,” says Schaller.
Recently, Schaller gave us a cocktail demo for the Sous Vide Gin & Tonic in CREA’s test kitchen in Sterling, Va., starting with a sous vide tonic syrup, made with water, cinchona bark, lemongrass, citrus peels and allspice berries cooked in a water bath at 158oF for two hours and then charged in a soda siphon. Keeping infusions under 185oF is crucial, says Schaller. “This is the temperature at which the flavor of the volatile oils will change on the fruit and thicken the product,” she says. Starting with room temperature ingredients will also help with a more rapid transfer of flavors, according to Schaller. And the fruit that remains can be used as a flavor-packed garnish. (Get the recipe here.)
Next up was the Normandie Old Fashioned recipe developed by Alex Day and Devon Tarby at The Normandie Club in Los Angeles. The drink employs bourbon cooked sous vide for two hours along with toasted coconut flakes—a much quicker and intense infusion than you’d get by simply adding a handful of flakes to the bottle and shaking it periodically for a few days. (Get the recipe here.)
The last drink sampled, the Charred Maple Wood Tipperary from Trifecta in Portland, Ore., is designed to replicate a barrel-aged cocktail. Maple wood is charred in a wood-fired oven, then added to a bag with Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth and Chartreuse and cooked sous vide at 149.9oF for two hours. What can result from traditionally barrel-aged cocktails—namely, flavors that end up muddied with sharp edges polished too much and each component’s discernible character less evident—is avoided here. The libation gleans complexity and wood notes from the barrel but keeps its character intact. (Get the recipe here.)
If you don’t have a sous vide apparatus at home, these are two workarounds: Add ingredients to a closed ziplock bag, and clip it to the side of a Crock-Pot filled with water set on low, suggests Schaller. Or you could put the ingredients in a sealed ovenproof jar and place it inside a pot of water in your oven set on the lowest temperature. Neither method claims to be as precise and may required tweaking infusion times, but they are both ways to get started.