Mike Yen's Molecular Magic

Bringing the edible cocktail experience into your home


Mike Yen's career as a mixologist began with a blow to the head. Several, actually: "I played soccer for UC San Diego, and ended up getting four concussions in a season. I started bartending as a way to make sure I was keeping my memory sharp." As soon as he made it behind the bar, the creative juices started flowing; alcohol-infused foam gave way to egg-shaped shots and Cognac waffle cones.

By the time he first got ahold of some liquid nitrogen, there was no going back to the field.

"I found that I really loved it, I really loved working with people, and it really allowed me space for artistic expression. My mantra now is to give people a great experience. I want everyone to leave happy, with memories they'll come back for."

After a few years trying to keep up with the quick turn-over in large bars, he struck out on his own as a private mixologist, planning adventurous edible cocktails for parties. We sat down with Yen recently to talk about quirky customers, worm fungus mixers, and the lure of smoking drinks.
The Spirit: Which cocktail is the biggest hit at the party?

Mike Yen: I'd say as a whole, I admit it, I do a lot of gimmicks at parties. Liquid nitrogen is probably still the big ticket. And anything that smokes. Once that smoke comes out, people are into it. I do a liquid nitrogen translation of the classic Grasshopper cocktail. The same components of the true Grasshopper drink, frozen with Liquid Nitrogen along with chocolate chips. The product is then scooped and served on top of a homemade Navan Vanilla Cognac-infused waffle cone. Anyone who's ever had a Grasshopper first reminisces of mint chocolate ice creap. This creation brings that nostalgia much closer.

TS: Where else does your inspiration come from?

MY: Inspiration can come from anything. Sometimes it's backwards, in that you might think of a cool name first. I've found that for a lot of people, if the drink has an interesting name, that plays a big part in how much they like something. It's funny, for a certain audience -- it almost doesn't matter what the drink is.

Sometimes it's based off of a cool vessel. I found these things called port sippers, it looks almost like, well -- most people would say they look like a bong for a hobbit. I've never met anyone who drinks port out of them, but they looked like little pipes, so i made a cocktail with dry ice, and played smoke as a theme throughout the cocktail.

The easier thing, as far as inspiration for a cocktail, is going on field trips to international markets. It can be frustrating, but fun:  About 5% of the time -- after trying so many things -- you'll find new great flavors you think are cool. Everything else is often pretty gross.

TS: What's the worst thing you've tried?

MY: You know, the worst thing was actually a concept for a drink. There's a guest who used to come in who would always have these girls that he was trying to impress, one of whom was Korean. So, he thought it would be cool to bring me some ingredients she liked, to have me make a special drink for their date the next night.

So, I taste one of these things, and it's like ... apricots and honey. It was actually pleasant tasting, but I'm looking on the logo, and it looks like a medicinal herb with this little fuzzy creature on it. I ask what it is, and in western medicine, it's apparently called Cordyceps. It's a fungus that grows on the back of silkworms. Even though it tasted decent, nobody wants to ask what they're drinking and hear, "Oh, it's worm fungus."

TS: Is that what made you leave it all behind and do private parties?

MY: [Laughs] Well, when you're in a bar, you're constricted by how busy it gets. You can't do anything too obscure or time consuming. When you do a private party, you know that you're going to be doing this one unusual thing, or a few unusual things, and everything's pretty prepped, you can turn it out for larger numbers.

There's also a sense of adventure when guests aren't obligated to risk their own money to try something. In a traditional bar, a lot of people come to you with some seriously difficult quirks: "I like vodka, but I don't like citrus, but I want it to be yummy - but not sweet. I usually just drink vodka straight up, and I want to try something different, but I don't like anything that tastes like anything."

With a private party, they don't care. What's the worst thing that could happen? It's just more fun that way.

TS: When you were working behind the bar, how did you deal with those sorts of customer demands? It sounds like an interpretive dance.

MY: Well, your ultimate goal is their satisfaction, no matter what. Even if that's sacrificing your own beliefs, whether that's honoring a certain spirit in the drink, or honoring a technique. Every single person has something that they like and dislike, so you have to sacrifice your mantra sometimes and make them happy.

Ultimately, you're peddling smiles and happiness. There are so many bartenders who say "I won't do this, I won't do that, I won't use this tool," but for me: I strive to give people an experience.

TS: So, what do you personally drink when you're out at a bar?

MY: Me? [Laughs] A shot of tequila.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    Where's mike's bar, and is there anywhere that does anything like this in NYC?

    Jun 09, 2010 at 12:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Mike Yen
    497472 1

    Hi Philip,
    Unfortunately, I am based out here in Southern California. I can be found at my new location called Avenue 5 in Banker's Hill, San Diego. I also do custom molecular mixology for private parties and events. My website is SanDiegoMixology.com. Thanks for the interest! - Mike

    Jun 20, 2010 at 3:19 AM

  • Snooth User: niq412
    510627 10

    mike you are a genius! i have to make that gelatin asap. when i get to san diego i am sooooooooooo coming to see you!

    Jul 03, 2010 at 10:58 AM

  • Snooth User: nvansicklen
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    211788 552

    Love to see a soccer player cook up some jello shots Mike

    Jul 16, 2010 at 2:26 PM

  • this is average. very very average. its all been done a million times... and im pretty sure what you've made there is called.... food! so well done chef but try harder next time. want any help... give me a call.

    Apr 27, 2011 at 4:16 AM

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