Is “Science of Cocktails” more about brands than science?

Last year I went to The Exploratorium‘s “Science of Cocktails” fundraising event for the first time. It’s been running since at least 2014, and from what I’ve heard it has had some great demos and cocktails in the past. However I found my 2019 experience to be fairly disappointing. I’ve been to a number of other cocktail events around the Bay Area and the best of them were generally focused on specific bars and bartenders, featuring particular ingredients or products. But the product reps were not generally the ones developing or mixing the cocktails. However, in the case of Science of Cocktails 2019, I found it almost entirely dominated by brands, and the cocktails were on average mediocre at best (with some a bit unpalatable to me, to be frank). Worse still, there was only minimal science, which feels like a bigger issue given the billing of the event.

After the event I got an email thanking me for my attendance, with the contact info of Akemi Yamaguchi, Philanthropic Engagement Manager at The Exploratorium for any “questions about Science of the Cocktails”. I had some thoughts to share so I sent her a fairly lengthy email. Unfortunately I never heard back. I started to get notifications about the 2020 Science of Cocktails event just recently and after my previous experience I was a bit hesitant to go again, so I emailed asking if anything had changed from last year. Again, no response.

I love The Exploratorium as an institution and am very happy to support it. But I’m disappointed in this event and their lack of engagement or follow-up around it. I’d love to know if there is a good reason (i.e. improvements) for me to go again this year, but so far nothing. For what it’s worth I decided to quote my email from last year to the Philanthropic Engagement Manager since it lays out more of my specific concerns around the experience. Perhaps you’ll find it useful if you’re interested in going as I was.

Original email regarding Science of Cocktails 2019, sent to Akemi Yamaguchi, Philanthropic Engagement Manager at The Exploratorium

Hello Akemi,

I apologize for the delay, it’s been a busy couple of weeks! I appreciate your interest in my experience, so I’ll share my thoughts below. I apologize in advance as I imagine this will get lengthy, I tend to be verbose, and I especially want to establish some context and where my expectations vs. experience are coming from so my feedback is hopefully more useful to you.

First I just want to say what a big fan I am of The Exploratorium in general. I’ve been a life-long visitor, my parents brought me there as a kid, and I have returned many times since. I remember when you moved from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Embarcadero and I was worried you wouldn’t retain the same character, and while some of the “funk” may have been left behind, the heart of experimentalism, and the joy in wonder and the scientific exploration and understanding of the world remains, which is most important of all. And there’s no denying the new venue is gorgeous! So thank you for all you do, and please keep my appreciation for you and The Exploratorium in mind as you read through this, I mean it as constructively as possible.

Now for a brief bit of context, this was my first experience with Science of Cocktails, and I had been to one After Dark event previously back in 2011. I heard about Science of Cocktails a few years ago and had been excited about the concept, and even looked over some of the recipes from past events and thought they were intriguing. I have also been an increasingly serious home bar and cocktail enthusiast for 6-7 years now, for example in the last few years I’ve made numerous shrubs, infusions, etc., and my bottle collection at home is around 200, with another 60 or so of bitters. So admittedly my expectations may have been higher than the average attendee. I do feel like the bar scene in the Bay Area already sets a generally high standard for most people who live here though.

I’ve also been to several other cocktail-oriented festivals and gatherings, most notably a couple of the CUESA cocktail events like Spring Cocktails of the Farmer’s Market. At those events what you mostly see are bars and bartenders creating cocktails, often while rep’ing a spirits brand, and most of the time I recognize the bars, or even the staff (as a frequent patron of many in the Bay Area). Going into Science of Cocktails, what I was hoping for was a similar approach, with high quality, tasty cocktails, but with a good dose of science thrown in with each one, or at least demo and info stations where I’d learn more about the literal science *of* cocktails.

With my exploration of the cocktail world over the past few years it’s become clear to me that there is a tremendous amount of science and the potential to teach interesting principles using cocktail techniques and ingredients, from simple things like separating suspended solids using centrifugal force or milk proteins, to pH reactions indicated by color changes, to the deconstruction and re-balancing of sour components from constituent acids (malic vs. citric, etc.), to molecular gastronomy techniques like spherification, to directional freezing in ice, and on and on. Unfortunately what I found was largely neither sciencey nor especially good flavor.

I arrived before opening and stood in line (I did not have a VIP ticket), and stayed through the entire event until last call, so I had lots of time to explore. In total I log having tried around 10 cocktails from various stations, which I think is about half of what was available as a non-VIP. Of those I thought one was rather good, and another was decent, the rest were mediocre to frankly a bit unpleasant for me. I don’t like to say that, it was certainly disappointing, but I also want to emphasize that it’s not my biggest concern. What actually surprised and disappointed me most was how relatively little “science” I felt like I actually saw (aside from the normal Exploratorium exhibits). 

There are 3 things that stood out to me as the somewhat scientifically oriented cocktail and spirits-related experiences. There was a station letting people taste alcohol-infused gummy bears and showing the amount they can soak up, the change in size, etc. They flubbed the experiment a little in testing absorption rates between bourbon and vodka because they used different gummies (sour vs. non) with each, so it was more flavor pairing test than real science. They also didn’t really explain why/how it absorbed so much, but I appreciated the concept and the attempt (the gummy didn’t taste great though, hah).

Then there was a set of 3 tequila-based drinks in different colors, playing with the expectation of flavor vs. color (a spicy drink would be white, for example, and you’d expect it to be sweet or cool). That was a semi-interesting expectation and psychology experiment, and also had nice presentation. But again not much explanation, just a fun surprise.
Finally there was the pineapple enzyme demo, which was probably the *most* sciencey and interesting one. Pineapple rum was poured over strawberry puree and you could apparently watch the enzymes in the pineapple dissolving the strawberry in real-time. Now without a control (neutral vodka over the same strawberry puree), you don’t really know if it’s the pineapple enzymes or just alcohol that’s doing the dissolving (alcohol being a strong solvent itself), but it was at least an interesting premise, and the person doing the demo did the best job of explaining what was happening.

There may have been more, as I mentioned I only tried about half of what I think was there, so it’s possible I missed some great stuff. But I did at least look at most of the stations setup there, and I didn’t see anything that seemed notably more interesting from a science perspective. And ultimately *that* is the real disappointment for me. I can get great cocktails all over the place, I know where to go for really creative and delicious drinks. But very few of those places are explaining how they do things or why it works from a scientific perspective, whereas I hoped I could get that at Science of Cocktails. 

It feels like there were a lot of opportunities missed. You could have had a clarified milk punch demo station, a pH indicator playground (with butterfly pea flower, purple cabbage, and more!), a rapid infusion test lab where people could use pressurized infusion to make their own “gin” in a few minutes (or at least have demonstrators doing it, or the same with sous vide), a gin botanicals tasting or smelling station, a salt+lemon taste test (salt apparently modifies the perception of the acids or bitter components), or demonstrating and sampling something as simple but important as why we shake or stir drinks (many people don’t know it’s not just to make it cold, but also dilute) and the difference between a shaken and stirred cocktail. There are a lot of possibilities, and I saw very few of them realized at the event.

I also want to mention that the event as a whole felt a bit too company-driven. Most of the booths seemed to be run by spirit producers, rather than interesting bars or bartenders. This is, as I mentioned earlier, in contrast with the CUESA events I’ve been to, where virtually every station is a high quality bar you may well have heard of, often in collaboration with (but not dominated by) a particular spirit or company. I would actually guess that this may be why so many of the cocktails were mediocre and not that creative, because odd as it may seem, my experience is that spirit producers are often not the greatest at producing good cocktails. Bartenders are, of course, the real experts there. And I did see a few bars there that I think I recognized, if I’m not mistaken, but none of the standouts that do seem to be present at some other events I’ve mentioned.

Finally, on a more practical level, I also found it strange that with some 20 bars (30 for VIP I believe), they were all serving full-sized cocktails! At the CUESA events they mostly serve sample-sized drinks, and this makes a lot of sense, both for guests and host. Guests get to try a lot more different drinks without either getting really drunk, or wasting a lot, and the host can avoid having to manage a lot of people being more drunk than necessary, and also minimize waste and therefore cost (even though I’d guess the spirit producers are probably donating their product for the event, it’s still nice to save!). To my surprise I didn’t see that many incredibly drunk people, so maybe that hasn’t been an issue, but I *did* see an awful lot of wasted drinks, and of course I had to set some aside to remain standing after trying so many myself

If I were creating this event, I’d probably make every drink sample-sized since there are so many (at the CUESA events they do have usually 4 full-sized out of the 16-20 total). And then I think I’d want to require that every drink served have some kind of science-oriented technique, info, messaging, purpose, etc. For some drinks it could be as simple as talking about the choices that were made in flavor balancing, and *why* that worked. For others it could be technique-related, like milk punch (which was featured in a cocktail there, but I don’t recall much explanation of it, and certainly no demo of it as I mentioned), or rapid infusion, etc, etc. And then I’d also want dedicated technique demo stations that include some of the other things I talked about, things that could ideally be hands-on, or would visually demo well, with clear explanations both verbal and written that explain what’s going on. In the end I’d want patrons to come away feeling like they didn’t just try some interesting drinks, but they also *learned* something about drink-making, hopefully something they could apply at home.

Ultimately, while I love the idea of supporting The Exploratorium and having fun with cocktails at the same time, I found the event to not really be worth the money to me, even at the “early bird” price I bought. For half the price or less I can go to a CUESA event with better cocktails and food. The science I hoped to find simply wasn’t there, and that would be my main reason for going, so I hope that’s something you can improve in the future. In the meantime I’ll continue visiting and supporting your mission in other ways!

Let me know if you have any questions or are interested in discussing my thoughts further.


Author: Oshyan

Food lover and cocktail maker, technology enthusiast, problem solver, entrepreneur, optimizer, photographer and wilderness wanderer.

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