Liquid nitrogen in your drink: When the cocktail crosses the line

GURUGRAM: Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and caldron bubble. Either bartenders are fond of Macbeth, or they fancy themselves as spirited alchemists. But following a Delhi businessman’s horrifying run-in with liquid nitrogen at a Gurgaon bar (it burned a hole in his stomach), people might come to see mixologists as mad scientists.

This was, let it be said, a one-off incident. But it has created enough fear and worry for people to ask whether the men (and women) behind the bar actually possess the experience and expertise to play around with something as unsafe as liquid nitrogen.

Sandeep ‘Sandy’ Verma, of Sandys Cocktails & Kitchen, said it is primarily a health and safety issue but is not being seen as such. “Anything related to health and safety should be licensed. Where health and safety come in, your course has to be certified and licensed,” Verma, a trained molecular mixologist, told TOI. “They just watch people like us doing it from afar, and watch some YouTube videos, and end up wanting to do it. Bartending has to be controlled at every level, the courses have to be certified.”

In India, the mixology and bartending professions are way too disorganised. Neither are there government-run schools to certify bartenders, nor do the authorities regulate bartending activity.

Liquid nitrogen, Verma explained, is cryogenic in nature, meaning that anything that comes into contact with it becomes brittle. “Liquid nitrogen has a boiling point of -196°C, and is the only thing that can freeze alcohol. “The first thing bartenders should know is that liquid nitrogen is not fit for human consumption at all. There are certain techniques to be used. Even if it is served, the drink remains with the bartender till the smoke stops coming out. The smoke has to evaporate. Liquid nitrogen cannot cross the bar counter. It’s fine if you want to create drama, create the same effect, for which you should use dry ice,” Verma said.

So while the fault may lie with the bartender, the greed of the bar owner, according to Verma, also played its part. “That person could have died. He’s been traumatised for life, and he’ll face lot of health issues – just because one bar owner wanted to make some money.”

Yangdup Lama, co-owner of the city’s Speakeasy-Cocktails & Dreams, said culpability should be shared. “It’s purely lack of experience. To a large extent, the blame would fall on consumers as well as the bar owners or management, and of course the bartenders. So, everybody’s at fault,” said Lama, who is also India Attache (2017-18) to ‘Tales of the Cocktail’ (a New Orleans cocktail festival) and ambassador of American Whiskey in India.

Blogger Pawan Soni felt patrons are as guilty as restaurateurs and bar owners, for there’s the ‘cool’ quotient and risk factor associated with such concoctions. “The public demands all this, which is why the restaurants and bars are indulging them,” said Soni, adding that harmful consequences are a given. “If it’s done by trained people, under guidance and expertise, it doesn’t do any damage. And nitrogen is fine for drama, because the smoke disperses pretty quickly. But its temperature is so low that if you put it into your mouth, it will scald you whether the preparation’s freezing or hot,” he said.

Inderjeet Singh, co-owner of Prankster in Sector 29, said owners are increasingly resorting to gimmicks to lure new patrons. “The whole reason why people are doing this is that it looks very nice on Instagram and Facebook,” Singh claimed.”But consumers also need to understand that something which looks good to the eye may not necessarily be great for the tongue.”

Clearly, there’s a sense of theatre to bartending. “When the smoke comes out, everybody gets very excited, that something extraordinary is going to happen. They like the theatre more than the drink. And that’s purely because of lack of exposure,” shared Lama. “And the management wants to cater to the audience. Everybody wants to do what is in vogue. For example, if everybody is throwing in smoke, I open a new bar and I also want to do the same thing. So I put a lot of pressure on the bartender, without understanding whether the bartender is well equipped to handle something like this. When you take shortcuts, these things are bound to happen.”
 Prankster’s Singh is worried that a combination of establishments with rising customer traffic, undertrained staff (and a high turnover of bartenders), and uninformed consumers is a recipe for disaster. So, until India starts certifying her bartenders, you’re better off plumping for the tried-and-trusted Old Fashioned, and giving the liquid nitrogen a miss.


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