“Half of the people who come here hate it,” says a barmaid that I can’t see. I think she’s shrugging. “The other half love it. We had some old ladies in the other night; they were having the time of their lives.” She takes away my empty beaker and leaves me to my futile attempt to clean my glasses. Like the rest of me they’re covered in a fine dew: my fingers stick and unstick at the ends of the transparent rain poncho I’m wearing. I return to the installation through two sets of strip curtains – the heavy plastic kind you’d probably get at an abattoir, if abattoirs happened to play David Bowie on their sound systems and served shots of whisky mixed with Buckfast.
At first the sensation is nearly overwhelming. It’s a little like entering a bedroom where a teenage boy has recently used too much deodorant. Every breath draws in a lungful of close, perfumed vapour. The visibility has plummeted, too: in the blue haze it’s difficult to make out anything except vague people shapes, chatting and laughing and occasionally trying to take pictures of themselves. The best way to describe it is not to say that it is pleasant or unpleasant, but rather that it is novel.
As I reflect on the experience between woozy gulps, I realise that it’s exactly what I would expect being inside a cloud of alcohol to feel like.
I’m standing in the middle of Alcoholic Architecture, the latest venture from experimental food designers Bompas & Parr. Situated in London’s Borough Market, the installation is a breathable cocktail: a room filled to 140% humidity with a gin and tonic vapour that’s absorbed through mucous membranes (the lungs and eyeballs.) Each visit, separated into 50-minute blocks, is calibrated to offer the rough equivalent of one large drink. While alcohol inhalation in different forms has become more popular in recent years, the basic principle isn’t new: excluding informal Nordic traditions of pouring vodka onto coals, the technology has existed since at least 1954, when it was employed as a way to treat the accumulation of fluid in the lungs known as a pulmonary edema.
Bompas & Parr’s excitable press release describes their cloud bar as “an alcoholic weather system for your tongue where meteorology and mixology collide against a canvas of monastic mayhem,” a statement both deeply silly and essentially accurate. From its fake stained glass windows to the drinks menu constructed entirely from monk-brewed beverages, the bar takes inspiration from its location opposite the country’s earliest Gothic cathedral; upon visiting the bathroom I’m even greeted by the vision of a monk, shimmering in the toilet bowl and reciting a bawdy poem. Beyond the cloud-of-booze bit, the impression given is that of a fancy dress party held by a particularly enthusiastic friend. The result is oddly endearing, although that might just be the alcohol I’m absorbing through my eyes.
As the 80s synthpop gives way to medieval chanting Sam Bompas emerges out of the miasma and we escape to the alcohol-free air of a nearby pub. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t seem to boast a leucistic albino python or pitcher-glass-made-out-of-an-actual-human-skull. Much like the cloud he has devised, Bompas is just like you’d imagine: a natural showman, energetic, passionate and given to floridity. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat charmed by a man who talks breezily about having “a skull guy”, claims to employ an in-house medium and is planning to found a major national food museum. If he’s a tiny bit ridiculous – and he is – it’s in the best way, borne from a genuine earnestness about creating memorable experiences.
“The most important thing for me is that people have stories to tell about themselves,” he says of the installation’s mission. “In a world where everyone’s increasingly online and dominated by devices the entire time, it’s nice to provide a visceral experience.” Even though Bompas extols the way that humidity enhances taste perception, using as an example the difference between eating fish and chips at the seaside against enduring a meal on an aeroplane, the actual physical sensation of inhaling a G&T seems to be almost beside the point. “It’s all about the interaction between people,” he states. “We’re not saying that this is how you’re going to ingest alcohol for the rest of your life, because it’s not, but for one evening it’s quite fun. It can lead to a lot of different unexpected interactions. Barriers break down in that room.”
This social objective seems to be the key difference between Bompas & Parr and other groups exploring the possibilities of alcohol inhalation, who instead place their emphasis on the consumption itself. For Vaportini, a company that produces a low-tech home inhalation kit – basically a tea light in a pint glass with a sphere on top, plus a straw to suck out the vapour – the benefit touted is that the alcohol bypasses the digestive tract and so the calorie intake is reduced, while they also allege that the possibility of a hangover is lessened. The downside of a device capable of rapid intoxication, of course, is that its misuse poses a higher potential risk of overdose. While skipping the digestive tract is a boon to the calorie conscious, it also precludes a horrible, tremendously important process: vomiting, the body’s primary defence against being poisoned. Unlike the controlled hypoallergenic environment of Alcoholic Architecture, where patrons are limited to a single daily visit, and which was created after five years of consultation with medics and toxicologists, deciding to inhale alcohol at home demands an extra level of caution and personal responsibility.
Facing the same issues but on the other end of the technological spectrum, Le Whaf positions itself as being at the forefront of modernist cuisine. Invented by the founder of respiratory biopharmaceutical company Pulmatrix, the futuristic carafe forgoes tea lights in favour of ultrasound waves that vibrate liquid and transform it into micro droplets. Earlier this year the device was adopted by Ardbeg, who have released their own version called the Haar after the cold sea fog familiar to the whisky-distilling residents of Islay. Rather than trying to circumnavigate the rocky shoals of alcohol consumption, the Haar sells itself as the opportunity to appreciate the subtleties of a complex drink. Despite their differences however, Le Whaf and the cheap-and-cheerful Vaportini still have more in common with each other than with the Southwark pop-up that boasts an ostentatious neon sign reading Breathe responsibly and bar staff uniforms that combine, according to the giddy-on-vapourised-gin press release, “the flair of the continental waiter with the ecclesiastical swagger of a dandified cleric.”
When I ask Sam Bompas for his opinion on home versions of alcoholic inhalation, he seems notably indifferent: “Vaportini is interesting for about two minutes. Maybe five. We’re trying to give people something that can be a seminal point in their night.” It’s evident that Alcoholic Architecture’s competition isn’t personal inhalation devices or even the local bars such as the one we’re standing in, but instead experiential, immersive entertainment like the productions of Secret Cinema and the theatre company Punchdrunk. The value it offers has less to do with ingesting alcohol than that of a curated experience that can be shared with others, both in person and, inevitably, online. “Without having to be on a yacht with magnums of champagne, it allows decadence in a tasteful and fun way,” Bompas claims. “I like the idea that you can have an exciting adventure as part of a night out, even though you’re actually just getting pissed.”
Unlike e-cigarettes, which have seen their global popularity explode, it seems improbable that inhaling alcohol will ever pose a serious threat to the regular, boring consumption method that involves a bottle, a glass and some liquid. The reason vaping has become increasingly commonplace is not that it’s healthier than smoking but that it’s healthier and it replicates the same fundamental pleasure: holding a small object in your hand and breathing in what it produces. This claim can’t be made for alcohol inhalation, regardless of whether you use a tea light and a glass straw or if you put on a poncho in a basement in South London. It just isn’t the same as a good drink.
Despite the cloud bar’s failure to measure up to the simple, glorious effectiveness of liquid alcohol, there’s still a distinct enjoyment to be found in experiencing something new. After finishing my conversation with Sam Bompas I go back to Alcoholic Architecture to wait out the rest of the session. He was right: for one evening at least, it’s quite fun. As stickiness returns to the exposed parts of my body, I breathe some gin and watch a group of shapes move around the room, trying to find enough light to take a selfie.
Published in Hot Rum Cow Issue 9.