Meet the Mad Scientist of Bartending | Wine Enthusiast
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Meet the Mad Scientist of Bartending

Not long ago, Dave Arnold and Don Lee got into an argument about ice.

As they worked to perfect the large ice cube that would be served in cocktails like the Banana Justino (rum and bananas) and the Professor Plum (prune Bourbon) at their bar, Existing Conditions, which opened in July 2018, they faced a conundrum.

“I think that people enjoy a slight irregularity that comes from the human hand,” says Arnold. “I’m O.K. with two sides being perfect, even four sides being perfect, but not six. It no longer speaks to the humanity of the bartender. Don disagrees.”

The pair continued to argue about the time, cost and energy of machine-made ice versus hand-carved ice. Lee came up with a solution: two-and-a-half inch thick rectangular sticks. The pieces of ice were big enough to sit in a bar well without melting too much, and when a cube is needed, there’s an easy solution.

“Bam! Bam! Two hits, and the perfect size cube pops off,” says Arnold. “It’s got the rough edge on the one side that I like, we know it’s going to fit in the glass, it has the perfect cuts on the other sides, and we don’t lose as much ice. I think it’s genius. I’m pretty psyched about the ice sticks.”

Though this is their first project together, Arnold and Lee have spent more than a decade honing the finer points of their bar work, which interjects science and technology into cocktails. That means developing innovations to improve the flavors and textures of ingredients and, for Arnold, to create the tools that his bar kit is missing.

Arnold has also gone above and beyond to prove that what he does isn’t just “razzmatazz.”

It was during Arnold’s tenure at the now-defunct Booker and Dax that he garnered a reputation as a sort of “mad scientist” behind the bar. It’s a moniker that Arnold doesn’t mind, but one that he sees as a somewhat inaccurate portrayal of his work.

“Whatever wraps their head around what I’m trying to do I’m O.K. with,” says Arnold, who co-owns Existing Conditions with Lee, a trained software engineer who helmed the bar at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm for years, and Greg Boehm, of Mace, Boilermaker and Katana Kitten fame.

“I’m not really a scientist,” says Arnold. “I use science principles and do a lot of technical work.”

Arnold’s previous experience working at the International Culinary Center, then known as the French Culinary Institute, has proved a boon to his bartending. He opened Booker and Dax with an eye on innovation, but not necessarily showmanship.

Arnold says there was a “mad scramble” for restaurants and bars to “scour different industries, whether it be science or homebrewing.”  Places like wd~50 and Tailor had the fancy equipment required to test new techniques. But anything that required pricey machinery wasn’t economically viable for most cocktail bars, which remains true today.

“One of the reasons for opening Booker and Dax was a work-ahead to a standard classic bar scenario,” says Arnold, who worked the tools and techniques he’d used at ICC into the bar.

Dave Arnold showing off his Searzall
Arnold showing off his Searzall, a piece of equipment our copyeditor loves for “the powerful .357 Magnum-type recoil it provides” / Photo by Matthew Dimas

A year after he opened Booker and Dax, he released his first invention for the kitchen: the Searzall, a blowtorch attachment that was billed on Kickstarter as a “supercharged instant-power broiler.” He also wrote a book, Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail (W.W. Norton, 2014), which explores concepts like temperature, carbonation, clarification and the reasons to use sugar and acid adjusting. These techniques, honed at Booker and Dax, earned Arnold both acclaim and plenty of arched brows.

“I’ve been called austere, which is kind of reaction against what people think technology is,” says Arnold. “Booker and Dax was me saying, ‘We’re not going to do garnishes or anything that people associate with what we do.’ ”

Though Booker and Dax closed in fall 2016, Arnold’s mad scientist persona has stuck. The cocktail program at Existing Conditions uses everything from painstakingly sourced ingredients like salty spring water from Saratoga State Park, to a compact centrifuge that Arnold invented, the Spinzall.

Released in 2017, the Spinzall is a fraction of the size and price of the dishwasher-sized centrifuge he used at the start of his career. The device, roughly the size of a standard food processor, can be used to clarify everything from dairy products to citrus juice.

“I had been using a centrifuge for a number of years, and I realized there were a number of problems with it: size, cost, difficulties balancing it,” says Arnold. “For me, the benefits outweighed the cost because I’m a true believer, but I wanted to make something that would be beneficial for someone who wants to get into it, but doesn’t want to spend $8,000.”

Arnold considers the Spinzall one of the most essential pieces of bar tech at Existing Conditions. “It allows us to create the stable, rich flavors that I haven’t been able to achieve any other way,” he says. He uses it for everything from spinning solids out of fruit and spirit blends to clarifying liquids so they can better absorb carbonation.

Arnold and Lee also incorporate techniques like forced carbonation, liquid nitrogen as a freezing agent, heating drinks with a hot poker (a time-honored tradition) and freeze-drying ingredients.

Existing Conditions aims to “[blend] cutting-edge science, classic cocktails and hospitality without a lot of fuss,” says Arnold. He and Lee have even rigged up a cocktail vending machine to dispense bottled drinks like Manhattans and 50/50 martinis.

Existing Conditions' cocktail vending machine and collection of liquid nitrogen / Photo by Matthew Dimas
Existing Conditions’ cocktail vending machine and collection of liquid nitrogen / Photo by Matthew Dimas

Arnold acknowledges that none of his high-tech antics are necessarily, well, necessary for the typical bar program.

“You don’t need to use any of these things,” he says. “But if you want to achieve certain flavors, texture, it certainly is helpful. A lot of the newer technologies allow you to separate the problem…like you can separate the problem of diluting from the problem of chilling, and you can do a lot of fun stuff. Frozen machines are another example of that. We can get rid of oxidation or keep things fresher.”

He’s also sure to tout the benefits of simpler technologies to achieve more refined drinks, like his Cocktail Cube, a large, rubber cube meant to improve the texture of shaken drinks without wasting ice. It launched about a year before the Spinzall to less shock and awe, but with a much more affordable price tag.

Dave Arnold's Cocktail Cube
Arnold’s Cocktail Cube / Photo by Matthew Dimas

The one bar tool that Arnold would like to see updated? The soda gun.

“I think the whole world would be better if everyone’s seltzer game was a little bit better,” he says. “The average bar [soda] gun is just so terrible. People make every kind of mistake with them. The water that goes into them is not properly filtered, they haven’t set up their carbonator right, they don’t have the proper gas pressure, they don’t run it through the proper kind of line…the end result of that wretched bar gun is only the last thing they’ve done to destroy the ability to make nice soda.”

Well-carbonated drinks are a hallmark of the program Arnold and Lee have created. When asked what he thought might be next on the horizon, Arnold said he’s really just excited to discover new techniques.

“I want new techniques, but I’m at a point where I think there’s a lot more room for saturation with techniques that already exist,” he says.

Perhaps the next argument between Arnold and Lee, a mad scientist duo if ever there was one, will result in something just as clever as the perfect way to blowtorch a steak.

Discover more about how science is leading drinks into the future in our Wine & Tech issue.