The science of cocktails Biochemist turned sensory ringmaster Alex Ott discusses the evolution of drink

My profession – I am a biochemist – is more like an adventure than a job. Somewhere in a restaurant, sitting on your couch, or at work, you most likely smelled or ingested a product I have formulated.

I believe that, rather than immediately turning to the pharmaceutical industry, we should use drinks, food and spices to help alleviate basic health problems, from low energy to stress or memory loss. My day includes mixing many rare ingredients in my laboratory: in cocktails.

Flavour and smell access our own personal histories, like our very own microchips: everything we have ever experienced, stored in the brain. This information can be used to harness wellbeing, to regenerate the mind and body; and this can take place whilst having a well-made drink after work. For me, aroma is the starting place for developing bespoke drinks.

I have created drinks for NASA astronauts, invented hangover-preventative health beverages and consulted on hundreds of menus, fragrances and nutraceuticals; but this is not a new science. There are many who have worked in this area – from the 16th century polymath Li Shizhen, to the Greek physician Hippocrates and the fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser – exploring the chemical properties of unusual scents and flavours. Such great minds inspired me to travel to rainforest canopies in Borneo, and many other locations, to extract samples of recently discovered flower species – their flavours ready to be harnessed and applied to new food and drink concoctions. Without these pioneers I would not be able to do what I do and keep developing new lines of research.

One of my earlier libations was the Fountain of Youth. It was not only a cocktail but a medicine, inspired by the fact that a growing number of scientists state there is no evidence why ageing can’t be dramatically slowed or prevented altogether. Recently the Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey has stated, “The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today.”

Having clinically tested my inventions on thousands of subjects I know that many conditions and states of mind for which we generally turn to modern medicine can be treated naturally. Natural substances are strong. I can manipulate guests to spend more money at a charity gala by using ginger, anise and honey, as well as eliminate the need for benzos prescribed to thousands of soldiers returning from war by introducing them to damiana, kava kava and passionflower tea mixes. I helped astronauts evoke pleasant memories of missing food groups from Earth with a drink that will be used for future deep space missions to Mars and beyond. Body chemistry is a playground.

Evolution has, in effect, hardwired us not only to catch a pleasure buzz from a wide variety of experiences, from meditation to cocaine, but also enabled us to heal ourselves with plenty of wonderful ingredients in food and drink. With recent knowledge we have vastly increased our life expectancy.

We must go back and ask ourselves why spirits were invented, what they were used for and how ingredients, flavour and scent affect every one of us: it is essential to our life, health, habits and relations to others. I can assure you, there are many ingredients out there that will blow your mind. Drink responsibly and respect your body. If you don’t take time to live healthy now, you eventually have to find time to be sick!


This is an excerpt from issue 2 of Avaunt, on newsstands now. Subscribe to Avaunt here

Words: Alex Ott

Photography: Sam Armstrong

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