It takes a few moments, but I gradually feel a tingle linger at the tip of my tongue before it takes over my taste buds. Sitting at the Aft Cocktail Deck, overlooking the “Lake of Dreams” at Wynn Las Vegas with my color-changing cocktail “The Monaco,” I’ve curiously been awaiting the effects of the Electricdust garnish, made from buzz buttons (a.k.a. Szechuan buttons), an edible flower that stimulates salivary glands, creating tingling and numbness.
“It’s happening!” I enthuse to a friend as a circus of sensations ignites in my mouth. As if on cue, a multimedia spectacle erupts on the lake below, which only adds to the trippy state I’m feeling. The cocktail — initially too sweet for my liking — suddenly tastes delicious.
Made with ingredients including lemon basil vodka, St-Germain, rosé Champagne, and butterfly pea blossom tea, then spritzed with a seaside parfum, the Monaco was designed to take guests on a “flavor-bending journey” and engage all senses. Mariena Mercer Boarini, master mixologist for Wynn Resorts-North America, says the visual and audio elements of the Lake of Dreams show only enhance the drink’s multisensory elements.
My first experience with buzz buttons was at The Green Room in Burbank, Calif., where lead mixologist Manny Magana helped create Buzz Off, a “Toy Story”-inspired tequila drink topped with Grand Marnier molecular foam and a whole Szechuan flower, which has a palate-changing effect. Giggles, confusion, and a hint of panic set in as the flower took effect.
Buzz buttons are nothing new in mixology, but they’re also only one example of the multisensory elements and ingredients increasingly appearing on drink menus. Whether it’s beverages served amid swirling vapes, garnished with numbing ingredients, sprayed with rosewater, presented in treasure chests, or paired with headphones, an ever-growing array of innovative twists are turning cocktails into highly immersive multisensory experiences.
Turning Cocktails Into Art
Mixologists have long been getting creative with the presentation of their drinks. However, the visual elements have become increasingly theatrical in recent years.
“There’s companies like Flavour Blaster coming out with contraptions that bring theatrics to the bar,” says Jason Asher, founding partner of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment and VP of beverage at immersive cocktail concepts Platform 18, UnderTow, and Grey Hen Rx in Arizona. “The entire globe’s gravitating towards it.”
Asher credits the tiki world with evolving the visuals of drinks in the ’30s, before the U.K. bar scene began pushing sensory elements further a little over a decade ago. It was around that time that hospitality consultant Thomas Aske noticed that cocktail theatrics seemed reserved for Michelin-starred establishments or bartending contests, so he set out to help make products like liquid nitrogen, foams, and fragrances more accessible and affordable to mixologists. Bars like London’s Nightjar soon began wowing punters with their attention-grabbing presentation and custom drinking vessels.
While Asher and his team have been creating theatrical drinks since UnderTow’s 2016 opening — even using Disney Imagineers, the creatives behind Disney theme parks, resorts, and merchandise, to help bring their visions to life — he started noticing the trend spilling more heavily into the U.S. around five years ago.
Social media has since rapidly evolved the visual aesthetics of drinks. The explosion of video content, largely through TikTok, has further fueled the creativity behind presentation, given that video can capture elements like dry ice or flames. (Asher’s wife Kailee, who works as Barter & Shake’s director of communications, says influencers frequently visit their bars just to film a unique cocktail moment they hope will go viral.)
Among Grey Hen Rx’s TikTok-worthy drinks is 100 Years, 100 More, which is strained into a cured ostrich egg and presented in a bird cage that lights up amid billowing smoke.
“You can juice your own watermelon at home, but you’re not going to smoke your own drink.”
Over at new Florida hot spot The Tampa EDITION, a cocktail cart makes the rounds of Michelin-starred Mediterranean restaurant Lilac and slings, among other offerings, the Gold Cocktail, a mix of Dom Perignon, Remy XO, and Grand Marnier Louis Alexandre. Served in a reflective spiral flute, the liquid swirls with edible gold flakes that twinkle as they catch the sinking sunset rays streaming through the windows. Amy Racine, beverage director for John Fraser Restaurants and five of the hotel’s seven drinking spots, uses a specific Champagne glass for each drink, including a textured, pineapple-shaped vessel for the Cane, a blend of pineapple rum, mint, agave, and Champagne.
Just as Racine serves Lilac’s pineapple cocktail in a pineapple-shaped glass, drinks and overall presentation directly reflect the content and inspiration behind drinks at Deer Path Inn, an English-themed boutique property in Lake Forest, Ill., near Chicago. With a beverage program run by Jorge Centeno, the dazzling offerings range from a Frosted Flakes and Strawberry Old Fashioned (served in the nostalgic cereal box) to the romantic Le Rose (Champagne, vodka, rose syrup, rhubarb, and edible glitter), which is poured into a rose-shaped glass and exquisitely presented in a wooden cage adorned with ivy and roses. A Caipirinha-style drink inspired by Bad Bunny’s “Después de la Playa” song (meaning “after the beach”) is meanwhile served in a shell-shaped vessel.
Beyond the Visuals
While picture-perfect drinks were popular pre-pandemic and mixologists continue pushing visual aspects, other senses are increasingly being stimulated. These multisensory offerings are helping mixologists push boundaries while also enticing drinkers with experiences they can’t easily replicate at home.
“Everybody became a cocktail expert during Covid,” says Racine, who created a rosemary-smoked Father’s Day Scotch drink at Long Island’s North Fork Table & Inn. “They’ve come back super knowledgeable and wanting to try new things. You can juice your own watermelon at home, but you’re not going to smoke your own drink.”
Kailee Asher agrees that riveting experiences continue to bring in regulars. And even those who became proficient at-home mixologists during pandemic lockdowns have commented that it doesn’t compare to on-site experiences at bars like ship-themed UnderTow and train-themed Platform 18.
“Once people get their photo and still order another one, I know I’ve done a good job!”
“Our spaces are immersive and have concept designs with special effects, sounds, and music which makes them come to life,” she says. “Our multisensory cocktails are an extension of those concepts.”
Take Platform 18’s Our Precious Cargo cocktail, which is a show of its own, starting with the bartender slipping on a conductor’s hat, blowing a train whistle, then yelling out the guest’s name. With a whole script accompanying the drink, the theater-worthy scenarios include asking the guest if they’ve misplaced their luggage, then opening a vintage case with a letter in it, before the cocktail arrives in a giant globe lit billowing smoke and glowing with LED lights.
While smoke is common in the presentation of drinks like an Old Fashioned, vapes are further shaking up the aromatics of cocktails. Jason Asher and his team utilize vape liquids made in-house using essential oils, like UnderTow’s El Robusta, which is doused in smoke from a cinnamon vape, using the Flavour Blaster Smoking Gun. The cocktail tool is commonly used across bars today, especially for its bubble-making function, which Asher and team choose to skip. Then there’s the feast for the senses that’s Madame Emilie’s Effects. Made with ingredients including Bitter Truth Creole Bitters, Lustau East India Sherry, and Plantation XO Rum, the cocktail’s bottled into glowing green vials, then presented in a treasure chest, which opens to release absinthe vapor and reveal the emerald drink jewels.
At other multisensory-focused bars, aromas are used to cap off a cocktail in the same way many people finish getting ready for a night out — with a spray of their favorite scent. Racine pulls an atomizer from Lilac’s cocktail cart and spritzes rosewater spray around the Rose Cocktail, with the aim of having the aroma “dance” around the table before a guest takes a sip.
“It’s so potent that a little bar spoon’s too big to put into the drink, so we just do a spray,” Racine says.
It All Comes Back to Taste
Ultimately, taste remains of utmost importance to mixologists and that’s where they continue to develop new and unique ways to take taste buds on a journey.
Tural Hasanov, director of The Tampa EDITION’s Punch Room and Arts Club, is currently experimenting with Miracle Berries, which can reverse taste. He says consuming the berry can make a lemon taste like honey, so he’s conscious guests need to be well informed of the fruit’s effects. “If you don’t know the effects and suddenly find a lemon sweet, you’ll panic,” he says.
Leo Robitschek confuses taste buds in a different way at Ski Lodge — a speakeasy tucked inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’s Superfrico — with his hot-and-cold spin on a White Russian called Slava’s Snowstorm. Guests sip through hot foam sprinkled with toasted coconut and cardamom before reaching the cool espresso liquid. Downstairs at The Chandelier, the lemonade-style Verbena cocktail comes topped with a buzz button and has become so popular that in 2019 it was reported the drink had generated $9.4 million in sales.
One of the most challenging senses to incorporate into cocktails is hearing. While Platform 18 staff recite a script when presenting Our Precious Cargo, Toronto’s space-themed Offworld Bar serves chocolaty vodka drink the Black Hole with headphones that play NASA space recordings.
Behind all the theatrics, however, every drink must taste as good as it looks.
“The drink has to relate to the story I have in mind and the taste is of utmost importance,” says Centeno, who educated himself on botany after moving from Mexico to the U.S. and now grows many of the herbs and flowers used in Deer Path Inn’s drinks. “Once people get their photo and still order another one, I know I’ve done a good job!” he says.
The enjoyment and fun that multisensory drinks create on-site — rather than what goes viral — is what primarily drives Centeno. And ultimately, social media fails to capture elements that cater to smell, taste, and touch. Sure enough, as hard as I tried to film the perfect clip of The Monaco lit up by the Lake of Dreams show at Wynn Las Vegas, an Instagram story couldn’t do justice to the one of the most memorable cocktails experiences of my life.
Similarly, Kailee Asher was recently reminded of how theatrical drinks serve little purpose if they don’t create joy and memorable experiences on-site. “I recently ordered Platform 18’s Our Precious Cargo for friends and our bartender was up there tooting their whistle going, ‘Is there a Rebecca on the train?’ and our friends were blown away – laughing, taking photos and totally beside themselves,” she says. “Our goal is to create memorable experiences that somebody’s never going to forget and multisensory cocktails give us the ability to do that.”