The retro cocktail trend may have spread from New York, but people are increasingly looking to Chicago for what might just be the next wave in mixology: futuristic cocktails whose character changes as they sit there, evolving in some unexpected way as you drink. (In an unusually tourist-friendly development, both of the prime outposts for the future cocktail sit on the same block of Fulton Market.) Here’s how two media outposts recently covered the cocktails from Tomorrowland:
The Today Show’s Bites starts with a look at The Aviary, and is generally wowed by the space-age thinking behind “ripping apart the cocktail, and challenging every aspect of it,” as Grant Achatz says in the interview. There’s lots of great eye candy of The Aviary’s exotic ice cubes and vessels (as we can speak from experience, any time you walk in there you’re a cameraman kid in an eye candy store). And Achatz makes a reasonable case for his idea of a cocktail that changes as it steeps in the aromatics inside its vessel, and tastes different every time you pour it. What could sound hopelessly precious— especially to the audience of something as mainstream as Today— comes off as fun enough to be worth trying.
At Serious Eats, Anthony Todd takes a look at The Aviary’s almost next door neighbor, iNG, whose new cocktail menu calls its creations “flavor-tripping cocktails.” And in a longer and more literary way, he’s equally wowed: "They are like no other drinks I have ever experienced. Aesthetically, they are both interesting and attractive—a 'gin and tonic on the rock' is served in an Erlenmeyer flask with a frozen sheath of lime-juice ice around the outside. Many of the drinks have multiple parts: the 'hot toddy & arnold palmer' consists of a teacup, a teapot and a flask with ice, tubing and water. It's almost overwhelming for the first time visitor."
Where The Aviary relies on what are, at bottom, traditional cocktail effects— the whole point of serving a drink on the rocks, after all, is that the water will dilute the spirit with time, mellowing it as you sip— iNG has a genuine weird-tech futuristic ingredient up its sleeve. It’s the “miracle berry,” a pill or powder derived from an African berry which messes with your taste receptors so that bitter turns sweet. In this case, it’s not so much the cocktail which is changing as you are— what you taste before you use the berry and what you taste after will definitely be two different things. As Todd notes, this “is both an opportunity and a challenge for chefs, who can create dishes like never before, but have to be sure they taste good both before and after taking the berry.”
So which futuristic approach will have more staying power? In some ways, though Aviary’s approach is more traditional, even homey, it depends on perfection of execution to achieve its effects; and some customers just aren’t going to sit still for that. iNG’s secret ingredient is perhaps more readily duplicated, and we could see things like the miracle berry becoming a standard trick for upscale bars— though again, execution makes all the difference, and bad miracle berry drinks could quickly turn it into a fad, and a dead one at that.
Perhaps the most revealing thing is that if you get invited to The Aviary’s deepest sanctum sanctorum, The Office, the cocktails don’t get weirder yet, but more traditional. The future cocktail may have an exciting future, but the past isn’t going anywhere any time soon, either.