Kenneth Gray’s Technique of Reproofing Alcohol Skillfully Mixes Art and Science

The alchemist.

  • Category
    Eat & Drink, People
  • Written by
    Michele Garber
  • Photographed by
    Ben Gibbs and Salt & Pearl

As part of his morning meditation, Kenneth Gray begins every day asking two questions: “How can I change someone’s day today for the better?” and “How can I allow someone to change my day for the better?”

This positive repetition enables neuropath rewiring called auto inquisition, moving consciousness from a perceptive state to a perspective state. Spend a little time with Kenneth, and he’ll speak of perspective over perception and EQ over IQ. These concepts are central to his hospitality philosophy and how he inspires his service staff. They also offer a window into his character.

Kenneth’s perspective has been shaped by his remarkable life path. At 46, he’s seen and done more things than most could fathom experiencing in two lifetimes. Kenneth survived an impoverished childhood and multiple near-death experiences; he’s raised three wonderful children; he’s traveled the world; he’s helped build several successful businesses; and he’s mentored and inspired countless hospitality colleagues.

“Hospitality is why I have continued to do this for 25 years. The cool drinks, the fun reproofing, that’s the conduit. That’s how the info is shared. But I want people to view us as their friends and come to see us. Come for the conversation.”

While living in Phoenix, Kenneth designed the margarita program for VIDA Modern Mexican + Tequila and his longtime friends Justin Essman and Mickey Mance, owners of Bella Vita Hospitality.

“The goal was to create something memorable and dynamic for super-fast casual with no time or space for prep. We did it and they loved it,” he shares. “I knew Justin and Mickey for years. So when they decided to open Salt & Pearl, they hit me up to consult and asked if I’d be interested in moving back permanently and being the beverage director for the company as a whole. Plus they told me Alex Schwartzman would be our chef. I jumped at the chance. They’re two of the smartest, most compassionate individuals you’ll ever meet.”

Justin and Mickey gave Kenneth carte blanche to run Salt & Pearl’s beverage program exactly as he wished, with no constraints. Kenneth has honed an unconventional approach to hospitality over the years, and he had developed an innovative concept for designing a cocktail list he’d been waiting to do. Salt & Pearl finally gave him an opportunity to create his dream beverage program. As he explains, “For 15 years I’d been pocketing this menu because I got called crazy.”

The innovative technique Kenneth brings to Salt & Pearl is reproofing. Kenneth’s natural curiosity and science background led him to experiment with volumes of liquids and solids. He tinkered with a process called swapping, or switching, which applies the laws of osmosis and dissolution where an item such as an orange is flash frozen. Then a hole is cut in the bottom, and the orange is allowed to defrost. A pure liquid concentrate drains out of the orange while the fibers remain intact. If the exact same amount of liquid (alcohol, tea, another juice) is inserted back into the object and it’s refrozen, it will get infused at that concentration through osmosis.

Alas, switching requires a very expensive $100,000 freezer. Kenneth developed an alternative to switching called reproofing. The science is essentially the same, but the process is decidedly simpler and doesn’t require freezing. Rather than start with a standard 80 alcohol by volume (ABV) proof liquor, he starts with a much higher ABV liquor. Using basic math, he brings that ABV down to 80 proof, leaving the integrity of the finished cocktail intact with a complex array of flavors without being diluted.

As Kenneth adds, “I wish I could make it more complicated and sexy for you, but it’s easy math.”

While chatting, he expresses that he doesn’t really want to be remembered for his drinks. “Hospitality is why I have continued to do this for 25 years. The cool drinks, the fun reproofing, that’s the conduit. That’s how the info is shared,” he says. “But I want people to view us as their friends and come to see us. Come for the conversation.”

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