Carbonating Cocktails and the Perlini

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What is better than a well-made cocktail?  To many Americans, a carbonated one.


The obsession with carbonation in the United States is nothing new.  For the United States, quite often the obsession can be linked, at a superficial level, with soda and soft drinks, but as a Western phenomenon of consumption, carbonated beverages have been imbibed for many years prior to that, thanks to the natural occurrence of mineral waters.  Marketed soda, or the idea of a sweetened flavored water, can be traced back to the 17th century in Europe.  In many cases, they were made with water and lemon juice, sweetened with honey (looks like a Toddy, save the spirit).  These were not carbonated, and the move to carbonated drinks starts in the 18th century with the efforts of Europeans to create artificial sparkling water.  Joseph Priestly, in 1772, published a text called “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air” and created this water by infusing water over a fermenting mash that would give off CO2 (O’Neil 7-9).  Compared to that method, the soda siphon looks easy.

Soda, while its’ origins in scientific praxis come from Europe, took off extensively in the United States, and were tied into chemists, pharmacists and the “soda jerk.”  The soda fountain, as a physical space, functioned similarly to a bar, with perceived health benefits taken from the carbonation of the drink, as well as a way to make tonics more palatable to the imbiber.  Tied into rhetorics of nutrition, health and medicine, the soda fountain also served as a space for conspicuous leisure at an affordable price.  And in many cases, the leisure included liquor: alcohol based medicine was quite common, and so mixed into a soda, it was not taxed, and served quite easily as a pick me up (O’Neil 10).  Soda took a place through consumption as a primary aspect of the American culture, and has remained that way.

With cocktails it has been common to top up a drink using a soda siphon.  Carbonation in Fizzes and Rickeys comes from the addition of seltzer water, and is not integrated into the drink.  The addition of this as another ingredient dilutes the beverage, and helps lower the concentration and strength of the drink.  While drinks such as Mojito or Fizz work fantastic, a lot of bartenders have an interest in trying new flavors and textures in their potations, and so the next logical step is to carbonate a short drink directly without dilution of flavor.

The Perlini is a cocktail carbonation system created by Evan Wallace, a physicist turned inventor who created many years ago a system for re-carbonating sparkling wine, most often Champagne, which had lost most of its’ carbonation after being open.  The precursor to the Perlini, the Perlage, was aimed at both restaurants and private aficionados of Champagne, with the sole purpose of making it viable to have one glass at a time.  You can hear Evan doing some tests and talking about the pressurization and design of the Perlini here on Vimeo.

The idea behind the Perlini is to have a single chamber that functions as a cocktail shaker.  The Perlini can be filled with ice just as a cocktail shaker would, and can be closed so that the creationis able to be shaken.  In the physics behind forced carbonation, gases are more readily absorbed into liquid at lower temperatures and by increasing the surface area, or the amount of the liquid which comes in contact with the pressurized CO2.  In other words, these two requirements are brought forth harmoniously when shaking a cocktail: the art of shaking chills a drink (while also diluting it to a good taste), and shaking increases the surface area to a theoretically infinite space within the sealed container.  In principle, the solubility of gas decreases as the temperature increases, which means that beverage should be as cold as possible to ensure the carbonation methodology works efficaciously. 

Made of a clear acrylic cylinder, the Perlini has a top valve through which pressurized gas is charged into the container, and the system unscrews both along the acrylic container (for adding the ice), and the top (which serves as a loose strainer and funnel).  When straining, since I prefer to remove fine shards of ice, I fine strain through a tea strainer: while this might sound as it would decrease the overall carbonation, I find that it has a negligible impact.  The downside with the Perlini is that to maximize the carbonation, you have to slowly open the top gasket, to depressurize the system slowly, so that the carbonation remains.  However, this is the same as if you were working with any carbonation system… 

For bartenders and restaurants of high volume, the Perlini is sold with a special CO2 regulator, hose and nozzle attachment that goes onto a tank.  Since I’m not using it for commercial consumption, I only get a nice little hand tool with button an nozzle into which a CO2 cartridge is placed and has a built in regulator.  This is my biggest gripe with the device: that the hand held pressurizer doesn’t feel as sturdy or as functional as I like it to be.  It does work, but just seems while you are using it, even after acquiring a feel for the device, to be a bit strange.  For a bartender however, the biggest concern would be hearing whether the carbonation from the nozzle (in either case) has finished reaching  the correct pressurization point for the system.  Bars tend to be quite loud, and having showed the device to a few bartender friends of mine, they concurred about the impracticality of the Perlini in just certain bars, especially high volume ones, because of the waiting involved to produce the best quality carbonation.

 
Flavor wise, the carbonation is fantastic.  If you look around through research articles, there are many which argue there is little impact of carbonation on flavor, and that it is mostly a textural element.  However, there is something distinct about the carbonation of a cocktail which works magnificently in favor of a cocktail.  Quite possibly, the aroma which wafts through the air upon opening the Perlini to depressurize it is the best feature of carbonating a cocktail.  When combined with fresh juices, you can’t beat the overall intensified burst of aromatic pleasure.

Back to the articles about taste: CO2 is commonly attributed to provide intensity of both salt and sour stimuli.  The idea here is that CO2 solutions stimulate trigeminal nerve endings, which means that the carbonation “may alter the quality profile of a stimulus without producing substantial changes in overall taste intensity” which is similar to the idea behind combining and juxtaposing differently flavors in a cocktail (Cowart).  When mixing a cocktail, you create a new taste that is a combination of the different flavors, and carbonation, heightening specific elements, modifies the taste further.  As such, the best drinks I have had with the Perlini, with carbonation, have been drinks that have citrus.  That isn’t to say cocktails without citrus, juice or fruit flavors do not work well, but rather that they are quite a different experience.

Furthermore, a lot of people will think, to bring the balance of the drink back into consistency with the heightened perception of sour, that the addition of a little bit of sweetener would be a good thing.  This is not the case.  Sweetener in carbonated beverages can have minimal impact upon the sour taste of the drink, and also the higher the sugar solution in the liquid, the less there is a perceived effect of carbonation as a textural element (Yau and Daniel).  So be hesitant about adding in more sweetener when carbonating a beverage, especially if you want that clean feeling of fizz on the tongue.

Overall, the Perlini is a fantastic system.  I would recommend it as a good method for carbonating small, individually sized drinks.  And once you have the taste of a carbonated Mai Tai or Sidecar, it is hard to go back to the good old ways.  But carbonated cocktails still have a place and time, and that has to be understood when mixing the drink and serving it.  In many cases, the carbonation can brighten up the drink, but if pairing with food, it becomes much more dangerous; plus the carbonation seems to be more of a summer trend than a winter one, and doesn’t work as efficaciously with spirit-only based beverages, especially those built around whiskey or other grain based spirits.

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Cowart, Beverly J.  1998.  “The Addition of CO2 to Traditional Taste Solutions Alters Taste Quality” in Chemical Senses 23: 397-402.

Yau, N. J. N. and M. R. McDaniel.  2006.  “Carbonation Interactions with Sweetness and Sourness” in Journal of Food Sciences 57, 6: 1412-1416.