These days, many a cocktail bar is sporting a canister of liquid nitrogen below the deck to chill their drinks and add an element of theatre to preparation. What is it exactly though? Is it safe or will it burn off your face with one wrong move? All of these questions and more will be covered today, as we discuss the basics of liquid nitrogen in bars and how to use it effectively (and most importantly, safely) in your day to day mixology.
Liquid Nitrogen 101
To start things off, we’re going to briefly go over what liquid nitrogen is and why it behaves the way that it does. Liquid nitrogen – simply put – is nitrogen in a liquid state that must be stored at an extremely low and consistent temperature. It boils into that visually appealing gas that we all love so much at around -196°C (-321 °F), expanding to nearly 600 times it’s liquid volume! It freezes at -210 °C (-346 °F) under vacuum pumped conditions, but this is definitely not as much fun…
The use of liquid nitrogen has become incredibly popular within the culinary world – appearing in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal and other celebrity chefs, as well as popping up in the realms of molecular mixology. Consequently, liquid nitrogen techniques may appear to be relatively new and ground breaking. However, it’s actually been used in food and drink since roughly 1890, not long after it was first successfully liquified in 1883. They didn’t waste much time back then!
Now that some of the boring stuff has been covered, we can jump into learning about some of the fun and interesting uses of liquid nitrogen in the cocktail world… If you’ve ever stuck your head into Eau de Vie you might have seen one of their liquid nitrogen chilled cocktails being prepared. In many cases this will involve pouring liquid nitrogen onto the cocktail directly to snap freeze elements such as cream or foam This however, requires a certain amount of skill and comes with a number of safety risks that need to be addressed. No one wants a cocktail that contains residual nitrogen!
A slightly safer path to take for first attempts would be to chill the glass before pouring the cocktail in. This will allow the billowing effect to occur and will give you the opportunity to make sure that all traces of liquid nitrogen have evaporated before serving the customer a drink. Safety first people!
Next up, we’re going to discuss those fancy aromatic fogs that have been popping up in high end bars and cocktails competitions all over the place. These are a great way of adding an extra element of theatre to your drinks and can be used to enhance the drinking experience both visually and olfactorily.
When liquid nitrogen comes into contact with any substance that’s warmer than it’s boiling temperature, it will billow into a smoke like gas – a process refereed to as the Liedenfrost effect. This can be used to our advantage in cocktail bartending…
Whilst many bartenders will use dry ice to produce this effect (which is based on carbon dioxide), liquid nitrogen is generally a much better option. This is because carbon dioxide tends to block the scent receptors in the nose, reducing the potential for the oils carried within your fog to be fully experienced by the drinker. Liquid nitrogen on the other hand helps bring these flavours directly to the olfactory region and maximises this sensory experience.
How To Create an Aromatic Fog
Firstly, you’ll need to get your hands on a vessel that contains an aromatic diffusion of your choice. This needs to be quite potent and oily (lavender and grapefruit oils for example).
Next you must slowly pour liquid nitrogen into the vessel and channel the aromatic fog accordingly. This can be either directly into a glass or simply in the air around the drinker. If channelled into the glass some of the oils from the diffusion will combine with the cocktail and build on the flavours that you already have in the works.
Using Liquid Nitrogen Safely
It’s damn near impossible to search for liquid nitrogen cocktails on Google without seeing hundreds of results covering the potential safety risks of the substance. One case in particular seems to have captured the attention of the media boogeyman. In the UK a young woman had to have a gastrectomy performed after consuming an incorrectly and irresponsibly served liquid nitrogen cocktail. You now know that liquid nitrogen expands rapidly when it’s stored above boiling temperature. When consumed orally, this can have disastrous results (such as stomach perforation)…
With this in mind, brushing up on the safety aspects of liquid nitrogen is absolutely essential before attempting to use it in any kind of professional setting. With proper safety procedures in place, liquid nitrogen can be a fun and safe way of enhancing the cocktail experience and an excellent addition to your bar.
Firstly, proper ventilation is an absolute must. Since nitrogen is colourless and odourless when fully diffused there is a danger of asphyxiation. Just make sure there is a good flow of oxygen to the room that you’re working in and things should be fine.
There’s a popular misconception that liquid nitrogen will cause burns immediately when coming into contact with skin. This however is only partially true. Liquid nitrogen thermally insulates to a certain degree, meaning that it takes a moment for it to effect what it’s come into contact with. So, if you’re splashed with a small amount very briefly, things should be fine.
If it pools or maintains contact with the skin for more than a few seconds however, severe burning can occur. This is far worse in moist environments so if you are sweating a lot or foolish enough to not wear eye protection then you are literally playing with something far worse than fire. Always protect your eyes!
Hopefully this article helped lift the fog (pun intended) surrounding the use of liquid nitrogen in bars. It may seem like a highly volatile substance that can only be handled by the most skilled of bartenders… However, with a bit of education and proper safety precautions in place, it can be a fun and accessible way of adding some extra panache to your drinks.