Junior Merino, also known as The Liquid Chef, is a well-known name in the cocktail world. He's developed cocktails for spirit brands and restaurants (including Rayuela, Macondo, and The Modern, among others here in New York). He has also taken his cocktails to the skies on Mexicana Airlines and to the seas by developing custom bars for Celebrity Cruises.
He has already created a traveling mixology school in his native Mexico, but back home in New York, he takes a more traditional approach. In a small space in Riverdale, Junior has created The Liquid Lab, a teaching space and playground for bartenders and others in the spirits industry—and I was fortunate enough to attend a recent session.
Imagine a small room whose every wall is lined from floor to ceiling, with shelves containing spirits of all kinds from all over the world—many unavailable in the United States. Spices, sweeteners, bitters, Junior's custom syrups, rim salts, and infusions are at the ready, along with fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit, juices, purees, chocolate, and almost anything else you can imagine wanting to put into a cocktail—not to mention chemical compounds and equipment to make foams, pearls, marshmallows, and gummies out of booze. This is the Liquid Lab.
The first round of sessions has been focused on Latin spirits (with a set focused on brown spirits later down the road). For each spirit, we'd head to the tasting room for a brief discussion of the history, origins, and distillation process, followed by a double round of blind tastings—five samples of each spirit.
Next, back to the main room, where we were charged with creating two cocktails for the group—using a particular version of each spirit, or one of Junior's infusions of that spirit, as a base. As someone who doesn't create cocktails for a living, I was somewhat intimidated by this task, but the wide variety of ingredients available, including fresh fruits, purees, and herbs, made it feel more like cooking. In fact, many of my cocktails were inspired by flavor combinations I would ordinarily use in a kitchen, rather than behind a bar.
By mid-day we needed sustenance, and Heidi, Junior's wife, had put together a spectacular meal, including ceviches, dips, and delectable braised short ribs, each dish containing one or more of the spirits we had tasted throughout the day.
Although the day was long, I found it to be an exciting, interactive, and most of all fun way to learn, experiment, and build confidence in my own palate. This cocktail I created, under Junior's tutelage, was one of my favorites. It could still use a name—that's one skill I still need to improve.
Shake over ice and strain into a glass rimmed with with salt and chipotle pepper.
If you're a bartender or spirits professional interesting in attending the Liquid Lab, email Heidi Merino.