Alice and the Magician

by Laura Sorkin


I am sitting at the demonstration bar at the headquarters of Alice and the Magician, in Burlington, Vermont. I have come with an open mind to try a product I have heard of for several years, but have yet to experience: aromatic misters for cocktails.

The concept intrigues me, but, if I am completely honest, I am a little skeptical. Is this just another gimmicky food trend?

Co-founders and brothers Aaron and Sam Wisniewski are behind the bar, standing in front of hundreds of tiny bottles, explaining their brainchild.

“Everything we do is predicated on the scientific fact that 90% of what we know as flavor comes from aroma. Flavor is a combination of taste, temperature, and texture, but the most important part of that puzzle is aroma.”

The brothers produce aromatic mists intended to enhance cocktails as an extra-sensory garnish.

“Our first culinary aromatic was Citrus Blossom Harvest, which is a straight citrus-driven one, but as people have adopted the idea of culinary aromatics we decided to branch out a little into things like time and place,” says Aaron, a former chef and the current mad scientist behind the formulas.

He continues, “One of our most popular ones is Autumn Bonfire, which is the smell of going out into the woods at that special time of year when it’s not quite winter, but people are starting to use their fireplaces. And it’s not just smoke — it’s a specific kind of smoke: maple, cedar, birch, apple wood, leaves, damp earth.”

They spray a sample for me over plain water. I take a sip. It captures everything they mentioned and more. All of a sudden I’m nine years old, raking leaves on a crisp fall day, getting the first whiff of a fire my mother has made to warm us when we come indoors.

And that’s just the mist paired with water. Put Autumn Bonfire over a hot rum toddy, and the cocktail hour has just been elevated from routine to downright trippy.

The most fascinating part of my visit is how the brothers upend my entire concept of taste. Aaron shows me a new product they are developing called “Elixirs.” They’re the same concept as the aromatizers, but in liquid form. To demonstrate, Aaron puts a few drops of “Southeast Asia” in some plain seltzer. I take a sip and taste notes of lemongrass, ginger, and lime leaf.

“I thought you didn’t work with flavors,” I say.

“We don’t,” replies Aaron. “Hold your nose and take another sip.”

I follow his instructions and drink again with pinched nostrils. There is no flavor at all — just plain seltzer. Mind blown.

One of the first things you need to do when sampling A&M products is to banish all previous concepts of fabricated scent. Yankee Candle Company this is not. All of the ingredients they use for their products are all natural and many, unconventional. One creation is called “Dirt Farmer.” They spritzed a sample for me and I could smell damp leaves, hummus-y soil, and rock. I hadn’t realized that rocks had a scent, but there it was, mingling with the taste of plain seltzer in my mouth. The creation of scents like Dirt Farmer are mostly for fun. Aaron was a chef for many years, and he’s obsessed with how scent affects flavor, so most of his efforts are put toward bringing the best out of the nuances of cocktails.

Their best sellers are Citrus Blossom Harvest, Wild Honey Rosemary, and Autumn Bonfire. Citrus Blossom is a natural with cocktails because orange, lemon, and lime complement nearly any type of drink. From Gin and Tonics to Sidecars, the flavor is incomplete without a twist of orange or lemon peel, so the addition of the aromatic mist in the headspace between the liquid and the top of the glass gives a turbo boost to the citrus without overwhelming it. Wild Honey Rosemary pairs well with any cocktail that benefits from an herbaceous kick; think Bourbon Old Fashioneds or a Rob Roy. And Autumn Bonfire enhances the smoky aspects of dark spirits such as whiskey, mescal or rum. And, like I mentioned above, you just may find yourself revisiting a campfire of yesteryear; do your best not to start humming camp songs over your scotch and soda.

After trying a variety of their aromatizers, it becomes clear why the brothers named their company Alice and the Magician. The first part of the name is a reference to Alice in Wonderland, and when you start sampling their mists, you feel like Alice exploring a strange new world where you question everything you thought you knew about taste. The second part of the name is self-evident — I couldn’t quite fathom how Aaron managed to put so much complexity in an aroma. The mists not only stimulated the taste buds and scent receptors, but also woke up memories and sentiments.

The reason the mists can do this is that scent is incredibly evocative. We all walk around with thousands of scent memories locked away in our brains, from the smell of a new textbook on the first day of school to spring lilacs blooming next to fresh-cut grass. In each of their products, Aaron aims to capture the entire olfactory picture to tap into those memory banks. Take the Autumn Bonfire mist: instead of simply including pleasant and typical aromas to conjure a theme, the concoction also includes the scent of damp earth — which isn’t unpleasant, but you certainly wouldn’t find it in a perfume or a commercial package of cookies.

When I smelled — and drank — Autumn Bonfire, it took me back to a moment in my memory, making the experience not just a sensory one but an emotional one. How Aaron extracts his all-natural scents is proprietary, but I feel very comfortable calling him a magician.

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