The N-Tini

New Charlotte club to offer a cocktail with a ‘cloud’ – and questions

The Charlotte ObserverMay 15, 2013 

Cocktail-infused-with-liquid nitorgen.

— Bubble Charlotte aims to open to the public Friday at the EpiCentre uptown, defining itself as “social sophistication” in nightlife and serving what it calls “the most unique cocktail launched in the Queen City”: The N-Tini.

That’s a drink – ranging from the Creamsicle to the Pineapple Upside Down – which has half an ounce of liquid nitrogen ladled over it, says Bubble operating partner and general manager Bourke Floyd.

Liquid nitrogen, which exists at 321 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit when contained in a flask called a dewar, creates thick condensation around the drink when it hits warmer air: This, Bubble calls “a seductive cloud.”

The customer must wait until the cloud has dissipated and any bubbling has ended – meaning the liquid nitrogen is gone – before drinking. If he or she doesn’t, says clinical toxicologist Anna Rouse Dulaney, “it can cause anything from minor pain to a cryogenic burn (caused by cold, not chemical reaction) to … a perforation.”

And therein lies concern.

“There’s the wow factor. Then there’s the burn-the-lining-of-your-esophagus factor,” said Paul Malcolm, who teaches at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte and recently helped teach a course in Modernist cooking, which is known for using nontraditional tools such as liquid nitrogen. “How could you monitor (the drinker) at a bar that’s busy on a Saturday night? I would not feel safe with that.”

Last October, a British 18-year-old had her stomach removed after drinking two cocktails in which liquid nitrogen was used, a case many bartenders are familiar with. (A recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” featured a similar plotline, ending with the same surgery.)

Using liquid nitrogen like this “doesn’t change the (taste of the) drink in any way,” said national bartending expert Ray Foley, “and it’s not that hot anymore. It’s too dangerous.”

Bubble’s Floyd disagrees: “I’ve been working with dry ice and liquid nitrogen for 15 years. I’m very experienced with it,” he said, and cited Las Vegas establishments’ use of the stuff.

At Bubble, he said, “At times there will be liquid nitrogen in the drink.” What the drink will require is that the customer “let us pace them. I’m going to deliver the drink when it’s safe to consume.”

He plans not to serve it when the place is “busy,” though he declined to define that, and added: “It’s really simple. If we can’t make them sufficiently aware, we’re not going to serve it.”

How Vegas does it

Restaurant manager Scott Seales of star chef Hubert Keller’s Fleur in Las Vegas (which lists liquid nitrogen cocktails prominently on its menu), said this week he would “absolutely not” prepare a cocktail this way. “There are way too many causes for concern.”

Instead, Fleur bartenders mix the drink, then pour it along with liquid nitrogen into a large bowl and whisk, freezing it into a sorbet-like consistency, which is then spooned into a glass and served – no cloud, no remaining liquid nitrogen.

No North Carolina regulations prohibit Bubble’s plan, according to the ABC Commission’s Raleigh office.

But the ABC must approve “recipes” for drinks that involve transitional steps – such as infused spirits, or frozen-margarita machines – said Tony Chesser, senior officer of Mecklenburg ABC Law Enforcement.

“Seeing the hazards associated with this type of chemical,” he said, “paired with the fact when people start drinking … their ability to make rational decisions, no matter how intelligent they think they are, is not always the case … I don’t see where the commission will allow something like that.”

Dave Arnold, known nationally for using Modernist techniques and partner in the hot-right-now Booker and Dax bar at Momofuku in New York, uses liquid nitrogen – but not in the way Bubble plans to.

“Cocktails … at Booker and Dax no longer have liquid nitrogen in them,” said a publicist. There, it’s used to freeze herb leaves, so they can be crushed into powder and to chill stemware (just the bowl, so customers’ hands don’t get cold), for example.

If there is liquid nitrogen in the drink, said associate chemistry professor Brian Cooper of UNCC, “it’s really hard to know” when it is completely gone. “Your view of the liquid would be obscured by the cloud… After (the cloud) stops forming, then you can see the surface of the liquid.”

Said toxicologist Dulaney, who works at the statewide poison control office: “We’ve had no (calls on liquid nitrogen drinks) in North Carolina. I’m sure we will get cases if this starts up.”

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