Liquid Nitrogen Cocktails – dangerous?

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Fairly or not, the bar industry is always getting into trouble, be it for responsible drinking, noise pollution or crowd control, there always seems to be something for outsiders to niggle at. In 2010 the owner of Apotheke in New York was arrested when flaming drinks were thought to have been taken too far by the city’s chief fire marshall, to much outrage from the bar scene (especially the tiki contingent). We all know too, that there are hours of television and reams of column inches dedicated to those poor souls who drink too much and end up poisoning themselves or choking on their vomit, but the latest story, is a little different.

A young woman, named Gaby Scanlon, was out to celebrate her 18th birthday, in Oscar’s Wine Bar, Lancaster, when friends bought her two Nitro Jägermeister cocktails. She downed them both and quickly collapsed in pain: within hours her entire stomach had been removed. Two drinks have led to a lifetime of medical treatment and an enormous amount of pain, so obviously people are up in arms.

What are the implications for the on-trade, though? Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr John Ashton (director of public health for Cumbria) commented ‘This girl is the victim of an irresponsible alcohol industry that’s now competing on gimmicks. People should not be playing chemistry in public houses.’ Which may suggest that the mainstream press could lean towards a witch hunt. There are already rumours of a total ban on liquid nitrogen, and of even further-reaching consequences.

We spoke to a few members of the on-trade to get their reaction:

Kyle Gibson, Lab

‘It’s just a ridiculous situation. I mean, come on, we’ve all seen Terminator 2, we know what liquid nitrogen does! On a more serious note, though, I think this could create some big problems for the bar industry. The local councils are already all over us for petty things like pyrotechnics (sparklers in drinks etc) and this is going to make it so much worse. All eyes on us, and not in a good way.’

Jamie Jones, Heart, Soul, Rock & Roll

‘I’ve used dry ice but not liquid nitrogen. What was the bar making?! It’s utterly idiotic in my opinion. It’s going to cause our industry a big headache and lead to many prying eyes in areas we don’t want them. There are some great pioneers such as Ryan Chetiyawardana who is from a science background, so understands what he’s doing and does it safely. What he develops then paves the way for the rest of us.

My concerns are that official bodies may start looking at what we do more closely, leading to problems like home-made products being scrutinised and possibly restricted, and even seeing the likes of Tiki bars and what they do with fire being shut down.’

Andy Mil, London Cocktail Club

‘Liquid nitrogen was always going to be a problem at some point, there are just too many bars are carelessly using chemicals and volatile compounds without having a proper understanding of what they are using. For a bar to serve a drink where liquid nitrogen could be ingested is as careless as it is irresponsible. And because of this the powers that be will now be keeping too close an eye on our cocktail bars, just as cocktail culture was really starting to get moving.’

Lee Potter-Cavanagh, Hix Restaurants

‘I think it’s very unfortunate, the biggest thing is that the majority of people use these things responsibly, but it looks like this was some kind of weird shooter that was designed to get people drunk quickly. I can imagine what kind of bar it is, with 18-year-olds drinking there, and I bet that the person who served them wasn’t much older and probably hadn’t had any training in how to handle it.

The last thing we want is a knee-jerk reaction and to have things banned, but my friends and I have said for some time now that there should be some sort of training and qualification for bartenders to have before they are allowed to use these sorts of ingredients and dangerous materials.

‘At the end of the day, some of the stuff that we use is very, very dangerous. There are people using it in a sensible way, and I think it will be a shame to have it banned outright. Personally, I would only ever use liquid nitrogen for one-off events, I’d never use it in any of our bars because we’re too busy.

This is a growing industry where the top cocktail bars are catching up with chefs and top restaurants, with their levels of service and attention to detail. It would be a shame to tar them with the same brush as this bar in Lancaster, and hopefully this will lead to some sort of apprenticeship or school where people are trained to use it properly.

Dan Priseman, Four Roses and

‘The recent incident with liquid nitrogen highlights the importance of using care when preparing drinks using modern techniques. As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with preparing drinks using molecular methods, as long as the staff preparing and serving them understand the hazards associated, and are well trained to safely do so. There are plenty of great bars, using liquid nitrogen, dry ice and other ingredients to add theatre to their cocktail service, but as a rule of thumb I consider the following to be a good guideline: picture your bar five-deep on a Friday night, music is loud and you can’t ensure that your customer can hear any special instructions… can your drink safely be served, simply handed over to them with no warnings etc? If the answer is yes, then your drink is safe to serve… if the answer is no, then leave that drink off your menu.

The theatre of cocktails can be important, but never more important than the safety of your staff and especially of your customers. If you’re going to do something out of the ordinary then research it thoroughly, consider the risks, train all your staff well, and if the risks outweigh the benefits then don’t take a chance. Take the “worst case scenario” and work from there, after all we’re talking about an environment where alcohol is involved, so whatever can go wrong, eventually will go wrong!’

Tristan Stephenson, Fluid Movement

‘It’s a really sad situation, but from a business-owner’s point of view, I do hope that this doesn’t have any further repercussions regarding legislation for liquid nitrogen, dry ice and beyond. Yes, liquid nitrogen is a dangerous ingredient, but it is no more dangerous than boiling chip fat, which is an analogy I use pretty frequently. It’s a preparation tool, not an ingredient and should be kept back of house and away from the customer. It has no more a place in a drink than a bowl of boiling oil does next to a plate of chips. We have used it in our venues for over two years now and know that it needs to be handled carefully – if this is what it takes to make people wake up to that fact then obviously it is a great pity, but something which people needed to realise.’

Edmund Weil, Nightjar

‘Nightjar does not use liquid nitrogen for the simple reason that we achieve similar effects with the use of safer and less costly dry ice (which is frozen C02). This said, liquid nitrogen does have its applications on the bar and restaurant world – there is nothing better for flash-freezing/chilling, and I have seen contraptions in Spain where it is used to frost glasses in seconds, which is very useful. However as we have seen it can be very dangerous because of it’s extremely low evaporation point. Proper training is essential as with all F and B operations. In terms of impact, the fear will be that this tragic and shocking event will bring on a raft of restrictive regulations stretching far beyond the use of liquid nitrogen in bars. My hope however is that common sense will prevail and it will simply lead to better training and understanding throughout the industry.’

The Bartending News Flash Team


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