Liquid Nitrogen & the Bar Industry

A warning to all those using liquid nitrogen in the hospitality sector, especially where it is being used in cocktails; you should perform a new and vigorous risk-assessment. All employees who permitted to handle liquid nitrogen must be given the appropriate levels of training and sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE).

Until such time as a new risk-assessment has been completed and implemented in full, premises should consider suspending the use of liquid nitrogen; pay particular attention to the investigation into what went wrong in a Lancaster bar last week.

Gaby Scanlon, an 18 year old, was taken to hospital with stomach pains during a night out at Oscar’s Wine Bar and doctors had no choice but to perform emergency surgery to remove her stomach; in order to save her life.

It would seem from the initial assessment that the situation arose as a result of her drinking a cocktail which was ‘decorated’ with liquid nitrogen; of which it is assumed she ingested some.

If this is the case, then anyone partaking in this activity must seriously consider suspending the practice with immediate effect and take the time to consider the relative merits of what some would see as a sales gimmick.

The hospitality industry has to work hard to attract customers and deliver environments where people want to go, but these places must be safe.

This case must be taken seriously, however I would not agree with the suggestions made that it is linked to irresponsible alcohol retailing in general. Delivering a good customer experience is an effective way of running a successful alcohol led business, without the need to discount or encourage people to drink more than they usually would.

We should be encouraging venues to deliver environments and experiences which will draw people out to venues, which don’t rely on volume and discounting, but where customers will pay a premium for the experience. This is one of the ways we can achieve vibrant businesses while reducing the number of alcohol units individuals consume.

Whatever comes out of the investigation in this particular case, we must not underestimate the priority of delivering safe environments for our customers; it is clear that liquid nitrogen is not safe in the hands of untrained employees, at least not in this case.


Origin of liquid nitrogen in hospitality

Popularised by Heston Blumenthal in the Fat Duck restaurant, the use of liquid nitrogen in cooking has developed a following. However if you take the time to observe how they handle liquid nitrogen, they do so with very great care and using protective equipment.

The Fat Duck has a significant risk assessment in place for handling liquid nitrogen and delivers significant training and PPE to those who handle it

There is a big difference between using liquid nitrogen to cook in a kitchen in a very controllable environment and using it tableside or at a bar making a cocktail.

In a controlled kitchen, by the time the customer gets the product, the liquid nitrogen has all vaporised and dispersed, whereas giving it directly to the customer at the tableside or at a busy bar, reduces significantly the control of the handler. Customers are unlikely to understand what it is they are dealing with.

The fog creating effect generated by the use of liquid nitrogen, looks on the face of it no different to the ‘dry ice’ you get in clubs, which in most cases is nothing more sinister than water based vapour; sometimes with small amounts of oil based fragrances added. Clubbers know that ingesting this ‘dry ice’ does them no real harm, why should the drink be any different?

This very tragic case is not another case of irresponsible alcohol retailing as some have already declared, but the misunderstanding and mishandling of a potentially dangerous product popularised on television and through the success of other using it very much more controlled ways.


Liquid Nitrogen - a dangerous chemical

Liquid nitrogen is used because it freezes items very quickly, it has a boiling point of -196c which makes it effective for use in the medical and industrial sectors. In these sectors it is used to reduce temperatures very rapidly, in medicine this process is used to destroy human tissue; that should tell us exactly how potentially dangerous it is.

If you use liquid nitrogen in cocktails or table-side cooking, we would strongly advise you to suspend your service of those products and re-examine your strategy focussing particularly on public safety; which is after all one of the key licensing objectives.

It shouldn’t have to come to someone experiencing such a terrible injury for this matter to be further risk-assessed, but now it has occurred, there is no excuse for anyone to ignore the risks in future.


Author - Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Beyond the Blue Training & Consultancy. He delivers training courses and provides expert opinion on alcohol & entertainment licensing and health & safety. Peter is a frequent contributor to industry publications.

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