design

Breathe responsibly: The cocktail bar where you get drunk without drinking

Updated 14th August 2015
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bompas and parr alcoholic architecture
Breathe responsibly: The cocktail bar where you get drunk without drinking
It creeps up on you slowly; that dry, back of the throat, fruity flavor. Within minutes you start to feel the warm sensation of liquor relaxing every limb -- except in this case, you haven't even had a drink.
"It's ingested through the lungs and eyeballs," explains Sam Bompas, my host and co-designer of London's first breathable cocktail cloud bar, aptly called "Alcoholic Architecture."
He hands me a regular cocktail and we delve deeper into the sweet-tasting haze, shuffling around other guests also dressed in hooded raincoats -- worn to prevent our clothes smelling like the boozy fog enveloping us.
The hoods only add to the conspiratorial effect of wandering around a damp basement situated on the site of a former monastery.
Even the names of the drinkable cocktails also on offer -- I'm sipping a "Friar Tucker" -- take inspiration from the monks who created exotic liquors here centuries ago.
In 2015 the boundaries of booze are reimagined once again; this time by vaporizing spirits and mixer at a ratio of 1:3, creating a breathable mist so thick you can barely see more than a meter in front of you.
With humidity at 140%, moody pop-electro soundtrack, real albino python in the ladies' toilet, and a neon sign warning guests to "Breathe Responsibly," you kind of get the feeling you've fallen down the rabbit hole of a Hunter S. Thompson trip.
That said, it's almost impossible to know whether you're drunk from the visual cues, actual fumes, or punch-in-the-mouth cocktails.
"It gets to the point where if you choreograph the set design, expectation, uniforms, and rituals enough, it doesn't even matter what the food tastes like -- you can make anybody think something tastes nice," says Bompas, who along with business partner Harry Parr, heads the celebrated architectural foodsmith company known as Bompas and Parr.

Real life Willy Wonkas

Dressed in floral trousers and crisp white shirt, Bompas is the self-confessed media face of the two, often typecast as the quick-witted creative floating whacky ideas, while trained architect Harry eschews the limelight for the more practical side of things -- "he's the one making things happen," says Bompas.
Together, the things they make happen are from the world of Willy Wonka -- flavor-changing gum, chocolate waterfalls, and a church organ which alters the taste of whisky, just to name a few.
It all started at a dinner party eight years ago, when Parr brought out a homemade blackberry jelly that so impressed Bompas, the pair decided to carve their careers in its wobbly surface.
They hosted an "Architectural Jelly Banquet" with world leading architects such as Norman Foster designing quivering replicas of their own buildings, and created glow-in-the-dark alcoholic jelly for DJ Mark Ronson's 33rd birthday bash.
"Harry realized that all the stuff he'd learnt in terms of 3D modeling when training to be an architect, he could do with jelly, allowing us to fabricate our own molds," explained Bompas, who first met Parr as a teenager playing in the same orchestra at Eton College, a school which counts British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William as former pupils.
"We loved how impressive jelly can be when you start taking elements of one discipline -- say architecture -- and put it into food."

Playing with your food

Indeed while food is still at the heart of their fantastical creations, the duo now work with an increasing number of scientists, artists, psychologists and taxidermists, to create ever more extreme gastronomical experiences.
They're now building an "Orifice Climbing Wall" for the Museum of Sex in New York; talking to professors at Syracuse University about cooking with lava; and are in top secret discussions with NASA about an upcoming project involving the International Space Station.
Where do these quite literally out-of-this-world ideas come from?
"I don't think ideas are particularly special or precious," says Bompas.
"There's this notion that some people are creative, and some people aren't. But I think everyone's creative. If you go to the pub, loads of people are having conversations with interesting ideas, but most people don't then spend the next two or three years trying to make it happen.
"And that's the difference."

Fruits of temptation

He shakes his head in disbelief at the bizarre adventures he's found himself in since "chucking in my sensible job in financial marketing" almost a decade ago.
There's the time Australian pop star Peter Andre, who suffers from a fear of heights, climbed their 10-meter-high chocolate wall while having a minor freakout down the microphone still strapped to his chocolatey face.
Or the time Bompas flew half way round the world in search of a rare fruit. "I'm obsessed with ultra exotic fruits," he says, adding that durian, the fruit so smelly it's been banned on Singapore's rail network, is "life changing -- it's like the fruit equivalent of acid."
"I went all the way to Hawaii to track down jaboticaba -- there're like these purple pustules that grow on the stems of trees and explode in your mouth. In terms of flavor, they're a bit like a cross between a plum, a banana, and a lychee. I had to go to a really obscure market out in the wilds of the Big Island. The fruit there is insane."

Gut and soul

Bompas once said he admired Chilean filmmaker Alekandro Jodorowsky's approach to directing: "Other filmmakers direct with their eyes, I direct with my testicles."
In the multisensory world of food architecture, which body part does Bompas direct with?
"Gut instinct -- your gut has more brain cells than a cat," he says.
"There's this notion now that consciousness might be more spread out in the body, rather than being totally located in the head."
What Bompas can't stomach is dining experiences without substance, and he is at pains to emphasize the amount of research that went into "Alcoholic Architecture" -- from the site's history as a pioneering beer brewing area, to the bar's stained glass windows adorned with bananas in a nod to the building's former life as a banana ripening store.
"I'm kind of bored of every bar and restaurant opening in London that's down south American cooking, or Korean food, and it's staffed by waiters or chefs who've been on holiday somewhere and been inspired by it, and it having no real relationship to the local area or local history, or local meaning," he says.
"So with 'Alcoholic Architecture,' it's about escapism and fun -- but at the same time it's totally based on the local history."
Though what an ancient Benedictine monk would have made of this intoxicating cloud dotted with curious young men and women of the night, is anyone's guess.
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