The Science of Cocktails

Emily Carlson explains the of U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Ce are both fermentation process of kombucha and ginger beer. | Katherine E. Hill

Drinks smoke, fizzle and glow. Men and women in white lab coats lean over tables at different stations creating, exploring and explaining a myriad of scientific experiments. Glowing gin and tonics blaze in a dark room.

WATCH : Brandon Barry prepare a Fire & Flood Flaming Cocktail

Butterfly pea flower extracts demonstrate the pH, or acidity, of cocktails, while participants test his or her knowledge of acidity and alkalinity of everyday foods and household items. A homemade Breathalyzer measures alcohol consumption, while at the Digestion station participants discover how the body processes food and drink. Vodka-infused Jell-O shots demonstrate the aspects of liquids and solids at the Polymer station.

Blue cocktails are lit on fire with 151-proof rum while participants are asked to consider the effects of weather and climate.

Each of the 11 science-themed cocktail stations double as learning hubs with unique activities and demonstrations. While drinks are poured and food is served, participants are educated about the science behind it all.

Benjamin Hatchett and Nina Oakley, climate scientists from the Desert Research Institute, are the brains behind the Fire and Food station. Blue cocktails are lit on fire with 151-proof rum while participants are asked to consider the effects of weather and climate, particularly the relationship of wildfires and flooding that can occur with increasing climate change. Oakley studies atmospheric rivers like the ones experienced in the Tahoe Sierra during the winter of 2016-17.

Christopher Tuck of Alibi Ale Works showing demonstrates how different hops affect beer. | Katherine E. Hill

“We had 57 atmospheric rivers last year causing an excess in moisture. This is proof that changes in temperatures of the ocean and Lake Tahoe are affecting what is happening in our area. Overall the climate is warming. Some places are getting colder while others are getting warmer,” Segale explained.

At the Fermentation station, participants ponder whether a few drops of water enhance the flavor of whiskey, while

Alibi Ale Works’ master brewer Christopher Tuck explains the basics of beer making. A hoppy Kolsch, a dark and nutty Porter, a citrusy pale ale and a unique Abstract Truth dark saison — a fruity, spicy carbonated pale ale, aged in red wine barrels – are the results of his work in fermentation.

Beakers of homebrewed kombucha and ginger beer. | Katherine E. Hill

Homemade kombucha and ginger beer prove the benefits of fermentation. Alison Toy, TERC’s program coordinator, and Emily Carlson, an environmental scientist with the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are fermentation aficionados. Two types of homemade of black tea kombucha served: one with plum, which had a sweeter flavor, and the other with apple cider and shaved cinnamon, which was a bit tangier. The kombucha process starts with a SCOBY, symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, which is gelatinous in nature. Different flavors, herbs or teas are added to achieve the desired flavor.

The homemade ginger beers, fermented for different lengths of time, made for a sparkling sublime beverage with an intense gingery flavor. Both the kombucha and ginger brew were enjoyable and felt like a dose of healthy going down.

The event was a sold-out success, said Segale, and TERC may host another Science of Cocktails event later this year.

The Tahoe Environmental Research Center offers free, interactive exhibits, a 3D visualization theater and guided tours for ages 8 years and older Tuesday to Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, visit

Fire & Flood Flaming Cocktail
1 oz. Tahoe Blue Vodka
1/2 oz. blue Curaçao
3 oz. lemonade
151 Everclear or 151 rum
Adobe Chili tincture

Add ice and first three ingredients to cocktail shaker. Shake. Pour into glass.

Float 151 Everclear tincture or 151 rum on top. Try to keep it layered on the top of the drink. Light with lighter. Sprinkle cinnamon over top to make it spark. Snuff out flame and pour into another glass to enjoy (glass will be hot). Optional: Add Adobe Chili tincture.