Characters: Dave Arnold

Don’t offer Dave Arnold a Gin and Tonic—at least, not one that you’ve slapped together with off-the-shelf gin and supermarket tonic water, with a simple squeeze of lime. He’s affable enough to accept the drink without fussing, and possibly thirsty enough to genuinely enjoy it, but when Arnold mixes a Gin and Tonic, things start to get, well, complicated.

Arnold is the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Tall and talkative, with his dark hair swept to one side and a Letterman-esque gap between his front teeth, the 39-year-old is taking the art of cooking—and, increasingly, cocktailing—and pumping it up with a measured dose of science.

In his five years at the institute, Arnold has developed a reputation as a cutting-edge pioneer, and his speech is peppered with references to the rotary evaporator (“rotovap”) in his lab that can cold-distill Cognac to remove the oaky traces of barrel-aging; the centrifuge he’s used to clarify banana purée and mix it with bourbon; and the ways to carbonate a cocktail using the perfect balance of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (“I use them in precise ratios so I can adjust the size of the bubbles and the prickliness in the mouth—there’s no reason you can’t have both,” he says).

A conversation about Arnold’s work resonates with the casual, deeply informed geekiness of a post-doc, tinted with touches both goofy and profane—an approach that’s mirrored on, the blog he maintains with colleague Nils Norén, that presents detailed coverage of the duo’s experiments and related projects. But even as he talks about ways to achieve the perfectly chilled drink or intense new methods to coax flavors into cocktails, he emphasizes that his aim isn’t to use science for science’s sake; it’s to build a better drink. “The first criteria is it must be delicious,” he says. “If it’s just a gimmick and it’s not delicious, it’s dumb.”

Take, for example, his goal to create the perfect Gin and Tonic. Using the rotovap, he can cold-distill gin using cucumbers, celery or any other botanicals that seem fitting, without “cooking” the flavors because no heat is used in the process, while also boosting the alcohol level of the gin. To better control the dilution and flavor of the drink, he deconstructs the tonic component, adding precise amounts of water, quinine powder and sugar to the gin.

Lime juice is cloudy, can make a drink bitter and shortens the life span of the bubbles, so Arnold pursued a clarification process that reduces lime juice to its flavorful essence. The process started with the ridiculously complicated—distilling the juice in a rotovap to isolate the volatile compounds, then rebuilding its flavor by adding three types of acid along with glucose, fructose and sucrose. Eventually he hit on a much simpler method, solidifying the juice with agar (a gelatinous substance derived from algae), then breaking it with a whisk and draining off the liquid, leaving the juice’s solids behind in the gel. Carbonate the mixture with two gases and superchill it to minus 20 degrees Celsius—the potent alcohol punch of the cocktail keeps it liquid far below water’s freezing point—and you’ve got one hell of a drink.

While he wears the white jacket of a kitchen professional and has a tricked-out lab that’s an ideal playground for culinary adventurers, technically Arnold is neither chef nor scientist. As an undergrad at Yale he majored in philosophy, both because of the subject and its fringe benefits (“I didn’t like to do homework, and I much preferred the late-afternoon classes,” he says), but during his senior year he dabbled in fine arts and continued with sculpture and welding through grad school at Columbia.

While working in the art world—projects included building a fire-breathing dragon that he battled with a sword, and miniature robots with musculature appropriated from dissected frogs—Arnold took an interest in food. He began planning a food museum and writing about culinary history and food technology for Food Arts, where he’s now a contributing editor. Along the way he struck up the acquaintance of Wylie Dufresne, a pioneering chef of “molecular gastronomy” at wd-50 in New York, and before long was assisting with the gadget side of the restaurant, enhancing and maintaining the restaurant’s battery of high-tech tools. In 2005, Food Arts editor-in-chief and French Culinary Institute board member Michael Batterberry recommended Arnold as the ideal candidate for helming the school’s new technology lab. “The pitch was, ‘You don’t want a chef, because that won’t give you everything you need, and you don’t want a scientist, because they won’t know how to talk to chefs. I can do both,’ ” Arnold says.

Arnold started out on the kitchen side of the culinary equation, but the pull of cocktail hour—and the potential to use his lab to help reshape it—was strong. “I like drinks, and it seemed like a fruitful vein to mine because there seemed to be a lot of work to do,” he says. “At the time, there weren’t as many people focusing on new techniques that were specifically for drinks, as opposed to modifying kitchen techniques and applying them to drinks.”

One of the few people using scientific techniques behind the bar was Eben Klemm, a New York bartender and former molecular biologist at MIT. Now the senior manager of wine and spirits for B.R. Guest restaurants, Klemm approached Arnold several years ago in an attempt to bring some rigors of the scientific process and apply them to bartending—in the process challenging, and sometimes debunking, long-held beliefs that were taken unquestioningly as truth. “I thought it was great that bartenders were thinking about techniques, but they were making what I thought were unjustifiable claims,” Klemm says. “I said, ‘Let’s clean up the vocabulary and see what we can come up with to study, test and evaluate people’s work.’ ”

Among the topics Klemm and Arnold tackled was ice—a theme that’s created a bit of heat in the cocktail community in recent years. In experiments in Arnold’s lab and at presentations at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Arnold and Klemm challenged—and disproved—some of the strongly defended conventional wisdom on the best size of ice and shaking style for effectively chilling and diluting a drink (their finding: ice size doesn’t matter in shaken drinks, but for stirred drinks, using small chunks of cracked ice that are close to the melting point works wonders). The findings were a blow to some bartenders, but Arnold says the point wasn’t to deflate their arguments—it was to get to the truth of what makes a good drink. “It’s always the best policy to assume that everything you hold dear can be wrong—that’s how you learn,” Arnold says. “If it can’t be wrong, it’s not science. Sometimes you’re pissed off because you’ve been thinking something for years and it’s dead wrong, but it’s also kind of exciting to find out that something that seemed so obvious turns out wrong.”

While advocates of contemporary, science-rich mixology are Arnold’s natural audience, he says some of his strongest support has come from bartenders more firmly rooted in the classic techniques of 19th-century cocktails. Arnold says bartenders such as these are looking for ways to maximize the quality of the drinks they prepare, and to understand the reasons certain ingredients and techniques work the way they do. “I’m a neo-classicist, but I very much like to experiment with new ideas behind the scenes to see just how these more advanced technologies might help me to build a better mousetrap,” says Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders. “If I can apply discoveries derived from our personal experiments to my own cocktail work without it taking on any ‘weirdness,’ I consider that to be a great success.”

Of course, the knowledge of how to prepare the perfect drink is almost worthless if it can’t be re-created in real life. Arnold says that while he has some phenomenal tools to work with, his goal is to develop approaches that can actually be used behind the bar. “Your first solution is usually pretty complicated, but then you think, ‘How can I simplify?’ ” he says. “My mandate at the school is to use new techniques and technologies, but I hear, ‘That’s great—how can any of us do it?’ So it’s always in my mind to come up with things that have a wider use. It’s like with drinks: Would you rather come up with a great drink that only takes two or three ingredients, or something that has a bunch of weird ingredients from impossible sources? Somehow it’s even cooler to do it with less.”

Klemm says Arnold’s honest enthusiasm for good drinks is at the core of his perspective. “He recognizes that ultimately cuisine is not something that is numbers, but it’s about perception and pleasure—it’s an aesthetic act,” Klemm says. “It guides the thinking of what he wants to work on. His family has a science background so it’s in his genes, but his perspective is, ‘Let’s see culinarily what works.’ ”

Arnold understands that he has some of the coolest toys in the mixological playground, but he doesn’t want the gadgets and gizmos to obscure the ultimate goal of making a good drink. “In the end, if you have a drink that you make and people say, ‘That’s interesting,’ I get horribly depressed,” he says. “If they say, ‘That’s delicious, may I have another?’ That makes me happy.