At Thunderbolt, a neighborhood cocktail bar in Echo Park, Los Angeles, guests are charmed by Southern-inspired food, hospitality and seemingly unassuming cocktails. But, veiled by an approachable menu and the no-frills drinks that forgo even garnishes, a meticulous attention to detail takes place behind the scenes.
“We use technology and unique methodology to create a one-of-a-kind cocktail program without any of the smoke and mirrors (or high prices) of other science-driven bars,” says Mike Capoferri, owner and operator of Thunderbolt. The technical work simply takes place out of sight. “Our aim is to remove the pretentiousness associated with so many cocktail bars, without sacrificing the quality of the product.”
For this reason, Thunderbolt uses straightforward descriptions for each cocktail on the menu, offering a few key flavors or ingredients, an icon that indicates the glass it’s served in, and a short explanation of what the cocktail will drink like. The bar’s signature serve, the Tropipop, is a carbonated and canned riff on the Piña Colada made with rum, pineapple, coconut and lactose. On the menu since Day One, it’s described on the cocktail list, simply, as “the piña colada soda you never knew you wanted.”
“I tell guests that it’s everything they love about a Piña Colada, but without all of the decadence,” says Capoferri. “I think the way we describe it on the menu is the best way to sell it.”
Built in a large batch—approximately 16 liters—that makes around 67 servings, the Tropipop spares no detail. “The first step is to treat the pineapple juice with a pectinase enzyme and vegan wine-fining agents before we clarify it in a centrifuge so that it can be carbonated without foaming—this will serve as a little more than half of the dilution in the cocktail,” says Capoferri. A 15 percent lactose solution makes up the rest of the dilution; the lactose provides the creamy texture that a typical Piña Colada gets from coconut cream.
For the Tropipop’s base spirit, Thunderbolt uses a blend of Magdalena, a lightly aged rum from Guatemala, and Rhum Clément Mahina Coco—a rhum-based coconut liqueur—which adds the expected coconut element. A solution of lactic acid tames the sweetness in the cocktail and also adds a roundness that lifts the perceived creamy texture of the drink. To finish, Capoferri adds a dose of saline solution, “because salt makes everything taste better,” he says.
These components are batched, dispensed into 2-liter bottles with carbonation caps, and chilled in custom refrigeration to 20°F—just above their freezing point, which Capoferri says is an ideal temperature for turning CO2 soluble. Then, the bottles are force-carbonated three times before resting under pressure overnight. At peak carbonation, the next day, the drink is dispensed into 8-ounce cans, ready for service.
Capoferri and his team tediously tinkered with the Tropipop for several years before finally arriving at its current form, which clocks in at a lower ABV than the original and has a creamier mouthfeel than its progenitor. (The latest formula is ideal for higher levels of carbonation.)
Even though the drink has undergone a diligent development process, Capoferri notes that the tinkering never stops. “We’re constantly trying to improve methods and quality, even on drinks we’ve been serving for two-plus years,” he says. “I can’t imagine it will ever leave the menu, but I’m doubting we’ve seen its final form. There’s a good chance Tropipop 3.0 will be around at some point.”