It’s called “cymatics”—the science of how sound creates physical manifestations in the form of waves. And one Washington, D.C., bar is harnessing those sound waves as a most unusual ingredient for a cognac cocktail.
“There really is something to sound changing the way we taste,” said Derek Brown, owner of the Columbia Room in Northwest D.C. “I think they’ve known that [with] potato chips and chocolate bars…but we’re starting to incorporate that and be more specific in craft cocktails.”
Brown first experimented with cymatics about a year ago. He put the elixir into a Tibetan prayer bowl, which is then rung by a mallet and the tip traced along the bowl’s outer edge — the sound waves vibrating the surface of the drink within — prior to pouring the liquid into a glass.
“You hit the bowl, it emits a sound, which is incredibly relaxing, but one of the cool things that happens is [the liquid] starts to kind of jump and leap in the bowl itself,” Brown said. “You’ll see it becomes more effervescent and starts to form patterns.”
At a Columbia Room called “D’USSE Re-Mixer,” this principle was applied recently to a cocktail called “Don’t Grab the Water,” comprising D’USSÉ cognac, RinQuinQuin à la pêche peach liqueur, green tea, fresh lemon juice, a splash of Bacardi and sparkling water.
Then it was poured into the prayer bowl to add nature’s most special ingredient: sound.
The term “cymatics” was coined by Swiss physicist Hans Jenny in the 1960s, who showed that sounds create specific wave patterns that become visible along a surface of particles or liquid. Its applications to general science go back as far as Da Vinci and Galileo, Asian Age reported, and the use of specific tones, such as those created by a Tibetan prayer bowl, are used to induce a state of prayerfulness or meditation in some Eastern traditions.
Modern DJs apply cymatics in their shows to shape the visual vibe a crowd experiences, similar to how color patterns were once a staple of hippie culture.
The specifics of cymatics as they apply to cocktails haven’t yet been studied in much detail. But because the human body is 70 percent water, the pitch and volume of a certain sound can affect us in the same way it affects water — or a cocktail. Ergo, a high-pitched sound makes a cocktail seem sweeter to the taster, Brown said, while lower frequencies lead to a more bitter experience.
Participants at the Columbia Room were seated along the bar as mixologists blended the ingredients for Don’t Grab the Water. For the baseline in this particular experiment, the “control” cocktails were poured directly from the martini shakers into glasses, bypassing the prayer bowl entirely.
As might be expected, the cognac elixir is sweet but not saccharine — pleasant and appealing, and appropriate for either the beach or by a warm fire on a cold night. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the craft cocktail, and it goes down easily and gently. It would liven up absolutely any self-respecting martini menu.
But now watch, Brown and his coterie say. The concoction is then poured from shakers into the Tibetan prayer bowl itself, which resembles an ungainly, half-elliptical tub of white crystalline material. It’s opaque, so you can’t see the liquid inside the bowl unless — or rather until — it’s tilted at an acute angle toward you.
Cradling the crystal vat in the crook of his arm, one of the mixologists taps the mallet on the side of the bowl, producing an F natural that slides down perhaps a quarter step as he rubs the tip of the mallet circumferentially about the bowl.
The vibed-out Don’t Grab the Water was then poured into fresh glasses and passed around. I can’t explain it, but it did taste better. I felt more joyful as I drank it than the version that never went into the prayer bowl at all.
Was it just my imagination, or were chemistry, physics and ancient mysticism somehow all colliding amid a crowd of hipsters to play a pleasant trick on my brain?
Perhaps the answer was both: As humans, we have been attuned through evolution to respond to sound, be it in situations or danger or socializing over drinks in the relative safety of a bar.
“When you’re at a bar, there’s music. Depending on how loud the music is, what style the music is, will really have a direct correlation on how you drink,” Colin Asare-Appiah, senior portfolio ambassador for Bacardi Brands, said at the event. (D’USSÉ cognac falls under Bacardi’s umbrella.)
Asare-Appiah, a Londoner with an easy smile and ingratiating manner who could easily be the un-self-conscious center of any social gathering, says that sound is as much a part of the cocktail experience as taste and the visual appeal of the drink itself, even if we don’t realize it. This extended specifically to 9th Wonder, the DJ performing at the “D’USSE Re-Mixer” event, as well as to bar economics more generally.
“When [9th Wonder] counts music—1, 2, 3, 4 — it’s in direct correlation to the way we create cocktails: spirit, sugar, water, bitters,” Asare-Appiah said. “If the music is loud and you can’t hear your friends, you’re probably going to drink a little bit more. And when the beats change, it could slow you down.
“So sound and vibration make a massive difference when we stir cocktails, when we shake them [and] and that cocktail interacts with that experience.”
If you don’t believe that, just ring the prayer bowl.
I’m invited to try, and after tapping the vat and rubbing the mallet tip along the outside of the bowl, the note echoed back at me is different, with the F scooping flat as I make the circles. The barkeep who demonstrated kept the tonic remarkably consistent, and when I returned to my seat to compare the video I took of him compared to the one my fiancée took of me, it’s clear that the mallet path I traced around the bowl’s outside was inconsistent, falling down from the crater rim and back up again, with the note changing accordingly.
But however poor were my percussion skills, I could indeed peer into the booze caldera to watch as eruptions upon the liquid’s surface followed definable shapes, less a discernible pattern like a sine wave and more like a topographic map of a mountain chain as seen from an airplane — except it was vibrating as if plate tectonics below were having their way.
Thus, just like the liquids that go into this sonic cocktail, perhaps as much care is needed in applying that final aural ingredient to the end result to make the drink, well, zen.