What is a cocktail if it’s neither shaken nor stirred? Breathable of course. The Bompas & Parr boys have yet again toppled the universe as we know it with their latest venture – the Alcoholic Architecture walk-in cocktail cloud at Borough Market in London.
The installation is no less than experientially titanic, providing the world with its ‘first alcoholic weather system for your tongue, where meteorology and mixology collide’. Through atomizing mixers and spirits at a ratio of 1:3 in 140% humidity, the bar’s chamber is flooded with a deliciously steamy blend of alcohol which is absorbed by its guests through not only their lungs – but their eyeballs as well. The high humidity is part of a carefully controlled environment designed to deliver maximum flavour perception and absorption. And so, through working with respiratory scientists and chemists, the duo calculated the perfect alcoholic weather conditions: by breathing a cocktail, the alcohol bypasses the liver, therefore allowing guests to consume 40% less, yet feel the same giddy effect. And, of course, to regretfully maintain the adage ‘too good to be true’, guests are only allowed to stay within the cloud for a maximum of an hour in order to ‘breath responsibly’.
Not only embracing the faculties of science, meteorology and physics – the installation also celebrates history. Alcoholic Architecture rests next to the UK’s earliest gothic cathedral and on the site of an ancient monastery, proffering a divine volume of inspiration for the bar’s drinks list. Enjoy a complete vision of monastic mixology and sacred sups, where each drink’s recipe was originally crafted by monks. Make a toast with Chartreuse – a French liqueur made by the Carthusian Monks since 1737, or perhaps you’d prefer to swill the notorious Buckfast – ‘a fortified wine so savage that Scotland’s parliament is reportedly drafting legislation to stop the caffeinated intoxicant from entering their country.’ The history alone is enough to make you dizzy!
The saturating experience doesn’t end with the cloud, nor with the monks, and not even with the live snake in the ladies loo. It could perhaps end with the barware itself. The complete design of the space is a cheeky mix of Miami kitsch and Medieval History – think contemporary tiki bistro slash goblet-laced bar-racks. This fantasy-fusion was developed in a concerted effort to celebrate bad taste and trigger essential party vibrations, giving ‘adults license to play’. And yes, it’s all fun and games until someone drinks from a human-skull. The piece de resistance is surely the bona fide human-skull cup – only a single one in the entire space, where guests will be able to ‘sup an overproof shot from where the brains once were.’
The Bompas & Parr boys are certainly known for their humanitarian efforts in diverting acute boredom, however each epic work they undertake is often short-lived and too quickly bursts into a cloud of sparkles and memories. This latest venture hopes to combat this, boasting a six month long tenancy, giving people the chance to be staggered within a doable timeframe.
Alcoholic Architecture is set in a hauntingly poetic Victorian building at the famous Borough Market, and is open till the end of January 2016 with the option to extend. The address is 1 Cathedral Street. I’ll meet you there.
Sam Bompas dishes on Bompas & Parr's current installation:
Alcoholic Architecture is an acutely immersive environment, activating alcohol ratios via mechanisms such as humidity and temperature in combination with the human condition – what kind of tests did you carry out to achieve the perfect ‘alcoholic weather system’?
Sam Bompas: This project has been five years in the making. We’ve collaborated with flavour scientists, respiratory scientists and even explosives scientists to ensure that the alcohol didn’t reach a critical flashpoint!
Effectively scientists were our mixologists calculating the ratio of gin to tonic so that if people were immersed in the cloud for an hour they would be enlivened and enervated rather than overcome! Happily the ratio is 1:3 gin to tonic.
What kind of trappings are required to maintain such a unique, specific environment? Was a basement a considered choice for such an environment?
It is crucial that there is relatively little air change in the room allowing for a dense cloud of vapour to build and build. Ideally, with relative humidity 140 percent, if your friend or lover is a meter away, you won’t be able to see them as there’s so much booze in the air between you!
The alcoholic cloud was not only summoned for its breathability, but also for the fact it can be absorbed readily by the eyeballs. Can you please explain the mechanics behind this?
The alcohol moves along the potential gradient into your eyeballs and from there into your bloodstream.
You discuss how the sensations behind taste are amplified in this type of environment, how does this work exactly?
There are gustatory and dietary benefits to the practice of breathing cocktails. The high humidity level enhances flavour perception and the vapour itself can be paired with a specially curated menu of drinks presented in the regular format (in a glass).
I guess there is a dietary benefit too. Spirits are absorbed through the body’s mucus membranes; primarily the lungs but also the eyeballs. In doing so it bypasses the liver allowing you to consume 40 percent less (with correspondingly reduced calories and headaches) to feel the same effect!
What sparked the Alcoholic Architecture’s birth, other than the original pop-up – can you loosely describe your methods in arriving to the concept? Has something of this kind ever been attempted before?
Our original focus was jelly. We soon realised we were taking cocktails and making them semi-solid. It became easier to work and create almost immediately. We then asked ourselves if we could push this state of flavour in the other direction – the gaseous state.
Alcoholic Architecture is effectively the gas state counterpart to jelly – a vapour so positioned somewhere between a liquid and a gas, just as jelly is somewhere between a solid and a liquid.
Of course the flavour implications are tremendous. We were always frustrated by the way that the gelatine bonds within a jelly would impede flavour release. By going the other way and creating a gaseous form you actually turbocharge the ability of the body to apprehend flavour.
So far as I known nothing of the kind has been attempted before. I love the idea that with the six billion people that exist on the planet today and all the weight of human history it is still possible to create a world first! Now this isn’t going to win Nobel Prizes but it can give folks a ripping night out – this is important too!
In terms of artisan skill, I can imagine the worlds of food and drink are not as closely linked as one would think. How does the craft of designing drink compare to the craft of designing food?
Food is harder because it exists in the forth dimension to a greater extent than drink does. The art of making an excellent cocktail is flavour balance and temperature control while with cookery you have to do that and get your timings spot on. That said chef’s hardly need to be civil while the greatest barmen have to perform the function of FOH too.
Naturally, the next query – is any food served as part of the Alcoholic Architecture menu?
Not yet…. But watch this space. We’ve been studying monastic follies and fancies as well as the hearty meal for the stentorian drinker. At the moment I am beginning to programme the space with lectures, workshops, and practical demonstrations. This includes everything from heavy metal stone masonry to a laser BBQ by way of post-modern alchemy!
The work not only orbits topics such as physics, chemistry and food science, but is also richly informed by history – particularly monastic history, and it seems monks were quite well-versed in the art of drinking. While researching, what memorable historic tipple-tales did you meet?
The drinks lists is entirely comprised of spirits and beers created by monks – potations such as Chartreuse, Benedictine, Trappist beer and even the notorious Buckfast – a fortified wine so savage that Scotland’s Parliament is reportedly drafting legislation to stop the caffeinated intoxicant from entering their country.
Guests were also able to consume a finely distilled selection of cocktails, but in the more traditional sense – using a glass. For a bar, the drinking hardware would have been an important consideration. What did you decide upon?
Real human skulls figure heavily. To turn a skull into a drinking vessel we first cut the top portion of the cranial dome off. There was an awkward moment when I trialed this bowl with water and accidentally swallowed a bit of loose bone… but by the end of the process the skull was sealed in resin, so drinkers at Alcoholic Architecture shouldn’t suffer this predicament.
The cocktail portfolio proved impressive – but what concoction fills the air? The Frankincense-smoked G&T, or maybe the Mystery Mead? Or perhaps it’s a more secret brew…?
For the moment we are keeping it clean with a simple G&T. As it is such an unusual way of serving the drink we want it to be readily recognizable, to inexperienced drinkers and friends of the vine alike! As the installation progresses we will, however, be experimenting with more archaic and anarchic concoctions in the cloud. The first is soon to be announced!
Visitors are allocated one hour of alcoholic basting for ‘responsible breathing’, I have to ask, how do the waiters fare throughout the night?
The waiters are issued with gas masks on joining the ‘Brethren of the Cloud’. Sensibly, however, the bar itself which they work from is situated outside the cloud unit.
You are clearly wizards in creating flavour-based sensoria. You will often translate food and drink into spatial, architectural expressions which takes a vital ritual – eating – into a full-body experience. What features of architecture lend itself to the food experience and vice versa? How do spatial mechanisms enhance the act of eating?
When you are working with food on an epic scale you have to make sure that you address taste in both senses of the work – so that projects are tasteful in an architectural and design sense, but that they also taste good on the palate.
Of course the table is the natural vector for food but it can be interesting to explode food to an architectural scale; but only if you can find a form that has some resonance with the framing context and also provides a rationale. For example you can turn gherkins into chandeliers as they transmit electricity (very badly) to become tiny food based bulbs – the sultans of savor. Or you can turn chocolate into a waterfall as the action of the liquid plunge serves to mix the chocolate.
In all our projects we are extremely conscientious about food waste. It would be monstrous and apocalyptic to construct a sausage village. But we have wired raw sausages to Arduino in order to use them to play Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata.
In an attention-economy, work such as Alcoholic Architecture demands no less than your full attention. However, the digital revolution has seen a lot of our daily experiences become locked to online, how do you think such an intimate culture – that of eating and drinking – will be challenged in the future? Perhaps it gains sanctum?
Ultimately the digital world still needs content drawn from real life to function. With an installation such as Alcoholic Architecture we provide visitors with a ready-made story of ‘My Amazing Life’ with which to fill their media channels. Ultimately the human body has been a resistant citadel to the digital world. It can dominate our brains, consume our hours on the planet but there remains a sensory and sensual imperative that food can perform far better than any device.
Exactly when will you make a sauna version available?
Sadly deploying alcohol in the sauna changes the flavour profile dramatically. We only opt for cool mists.
That said I enjoy life as a connoisseur of international bathing techniques. It sounds creepy, and probably is creepy, but healthful too and a compelling goad to creativity. At the moment I’m interested in the bodily applications of cryogenics and the cultural history of sweat!
Photos courtesy of Bompas & Parr