Tom Zyankali was using liquid nitrogen in cocktails years before anyone else
If you like beer or wine, probably don’t bother visiting bartender Tom Zyankali’s cocktail bar, which is one of the oldest in the German capital of Berlin. But if chicken skin and fermented fish are up your street, read on.
Zyankali first found himself behind a bar in 1978 when he says he was studying "Rock’n’Roll dance", when he poured drinks at Sunday afternoon parties to fund his studies. By 1991, he’d completed a degree in chemistry and worked as a chemical engineer. He was bored. Bored of his job and bored of the bar scene. So, he opened his own joint. Long before themed pop-ups, he filled his bar with test tubes and scientific equipment like liquid nitrogen cannisters.
“At that time, there were just stiff hotel bars or pubs virtually. I wanted a quality drink in a student bar atmosphere where one should feel like in one’s extended living room and having more than just a beer,” he tells The Independent.
Fermented fish, blue cheese, chicken skin: it’s all on the menu at Zyankali Bar in the bohemian Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Zyankali says his background in science gave him the edge on other bartenders at a time when they were playing about with old fashioneds and mojitos.
Meanwhile, Zyankali barrel-ageing cocktails. And fat-washing drinks. This is where liquid like melted butter or oil is mixed into a cocktail at room temperature. The cocktail is then chilled, and the fat is skimmed off the top: leaving behind a rich flavour.
“With the renaissance of bar culture in the last 10 to 15 years came a lot of modern techniques, many of them derived from techniques used in laboratories.
“My education gives me the advantage of understanding the physics and basic science, so by understanding how things work I can have an influence on it in opposition to most of my colleagues who have to rely on trial and error.”
Zyankali claims the skills he’s honed over the past three decades mean he can make guests the perfect drink by having a quick chat about their favourite food, perfume, or holiday destination. OK, so, how about someone who likes peanuts and sushi?
“I would go for the ginger and horseradish from the sushi, add some kaffir lime and or lemongrass. Not having a peanut liquor I'd use a little bit of Frangelico and a caramelly rum like Gosling Gold Seal, probably balanced with a little bit of pineapple, so we end up with something like a Tom Yum. Straight from our menu I'd suggest a Tamarotti with tamarind and date chutney, chili-balsamico, white chocolate, dark rum, carrot juice.”
When Zyankali is able to play with so many flavours, it’s understandable why he hates wine and beer.
“In a cocktail bar drinking beer and wine is just missing the point," he argues. "A cocktail bar should be about experiencing complex and sometimes unexpected flavour combinations and not just quench thirst. If you want to spend a cheap evening out you're better off in a pub or a wine bar.” He doesn’t even like the taste, he adds.
What he does enjoy, however, is rum- or brandy- Manhattans. "In the summer I like a refreshing New York Sour. If I'm in danger of catching a cold I love to have a hot Dark and Stormy."
Lime juice, meanwhile, is the ingredient he can't live without. “I also work quite a lot with absinthe and I'm a big fan of aged cachacas since they are allowed to age in more than 25 different woods, which gives it flavours no other spirit has."
His parting words of advice for anyone tempted to open their own experimental bar? "If you are working with laboratory techniques be aware of scientifically knowing what you want and do. If you don´t have a proper education (and I don´t mean a four hour workshop or a two week class at community school) stay away from liquid nitrogen, rotoray evaporators and centrifuges. These are dangerous devices that might kill you, your workmates and customers."