Meet Boston’s Mad Scientist Mixologist
At Boston’s Café ArtScience, words like centrifuge, rotavap, and differential expansion are well worked into the lexicons of the staff, resulting in over-the-top drams on a daily basis. That forward-thinking is spearheaded by bar man Todd Maul, and it has traditional enough origins: furniture making at Boston’s North Bennet Street School, where Maul studied woodworking.
“One of the first things they have you do at North Bennet is flatten a board to the tolerance of newspaper with a hand plane, which takes quite a bit of time,” he says. The students were then asked to take another piece of wood into a machine room and run it through a jointer and planer to create a reference edge — a method that took just five minutes. “I looked at that and said, ‘how is it that the trade that is bartending isn’t looking at the technology that’s available to it and moving what’s available forward?’” says Maul.
Todd Maul separates lime juice by mass in a centrifuge, resulting in an opaque, homogenous liquid — you’ve got a lime juice that you can keep for six more days, as opposed to an ingredient you’d have to toss on a daily basis. Photo by Wayne Chinnock.
That inquiry caused him to invest in his very first centrifuge and start experimenting with one classic: the gimlet. Upon adding lime juice and recognizing that he could strip off the component’s low acid note, Maul realized the drink wouldn’t require quite as much sugar, either. “Building a drink should be like building a chord in music: There should be a high note, a low note and a middle note,” he says. In a regular gimlet, Maul points out, it’s the gin holding the high note, the lime juice as the low note, and the simple syrup in the middle — whereas in a clarified lime gimlet, everything is turned on its head. “It’s the lime juice holding the high note, the gin as the middle note, and the simple syrup as the low note,” he says. “It becomes a completely different drink.”
Maul is well aware that the whole clarified lime thing can come off as gimmicky when it’s done for aesthetics alone, and that’s because of how folks are achieving it. “In order to clarify lime juice to a translucent state you need agar, and to initiate agar you need to heat it to 200 degrees,” he says. And the problem with 200-degree lime juice, of course? “It’s crap,” confirms Maul. But when done correctly — i.e. separating it by mass in a centrifuge, resulting in an opaque, homogenous liquid — you’ve got a lime juice that you can keep for six more days, as opposed to an ingredient you’d have to toss on a daily basis.
Much more than show, it’s those kinds of resourceful possibilities that prompt Maul to dive deeper into the methods of modern technology. “There’s an old saying: You measure the greatness of a chef by what he throws out,’” he notes. “I think the same applies to bartending — you should be able to repurpose items.”
Take, for example, the bottle of 1974 Dom Pérignon that Maul received when his son was born, which he discovered had gone flat. While others would have been quick to toss the bottle and deem it an unfortunate loss, Maul found in it an opportunity. “I put it into a rotavap, pulled it apart, made it into a tincture and then into a paint that we brushed inside the glass of a cocktail,” he says. It’s the same technique they use for the bar’s Koi Pond, a martini of rosé paint, rosé essence, vermouth, Cocchi Americano, gin and edible flowers, which Maul adheres to the paint lining the glass. That rosé paint comes from a most unlikely source: spoiled rosé, which Maul obtains by pulling it through that ol’ reliable rotavap. “When you drink it you’re drinking this soft rosé martini and it looks like a koi pond,” says Maul. “As the paint breaks off in the solution, the flowers break off and float to the top.”
The Koi Pond is a martini of rosé paint, rosé essence, vermouth, Cocchi Americano, gin and edible flowers, which Maul adheres to the paint lining the glass. That rosé paint comes from a most unlikely source: spoiled rosé, which Maul obtains by pulling it through that ol’ reliable rotavap. Photo by Wayne Chinnock.
If you’re thinking a cocktail like that might need a village to build it, you’re right. Each person on Maul’s bar team heads up a different task in the cocktail assembly line, from prepping glassware and crushing ice, to handling flavored ice and smoking or painting glasses. “It’s all about dividing up the labor,” notes Maul, whose bar is designed to mimic the efficiency found in a serious kitchen. That layout results in drink delivery within nine minutes according to Maul — no matter how complex the cocktail. And if guests aren’t seeing anything on the 50 plus list that strikes their fancy, the team creates something on the fly — centrifuged and all — before letting the guest name it. Maul is more than game for the challenge.
“A cocktail list is like a compilation of greatest hits, and those are the records put out by bands when they don’t have anything new to give you,” he says. “These may be what I’ve done and what I’m confident in doing, but I don’t want to only be selling something I’m confident in doing.”
That confidence has come by way of more than five years of playing around with ingredients and techniques, and by asking questions — lots of questions. “I went around asking people who are a lot smarter than I am about these ideas,” he says, citing the whole simple syrup debate as a prime example. “Bartenders are always saying it needs to be heated this way or stirred that way, and it’s all ludicrous — it’s science, so it’s like, ‘‘why don’t you go ask a guy with a PhD, and he’ll tell you?’”
And elite universities aren’t the only places where Maul has picked up his know-how. “One of my favorite bars is a neighborhood place called Trina’s Starlite Lounge, and I go in there, sit down, and just study how the bartenders interact with people,” he says. Maul was particularly awestruck when he saw a bartender shaking everybody’s hand at the bar — whether he knew them or not. “I was like, ‘that’s such a cool fucking idea — I’m going to do that,’” he says. And while Maul is a stickler for impressive cocktails and a constant challenge, it’s the handshakes and hellos that continue to propel him in this industry. “Walking into a place and hearing, ‘hey man, thanks for coming,’ is far greater than doing anything overly clever or silly,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m a bartender, and I make drinks — and I’d do it for free.”