Nitrogen Cocktail Explodes in Teen, Stirring Up Debate

British bar accident leaves celebrity chefs scratching their heads.

ByABC News
October 8, 2012, 3:36 PM

Oct. 9, 2012— -- Celebrity chefs, master mixologists and medical experts from around the world are steamed up about a report that a British teenager had a portion of her perforated stomach removed after ingesting liquid nitrogen in a trendy cocktail.

Gaby Scanlan was celebrating her 18th birthday at a Lancaster bar in Northern England when she became "breathless" and experienced severe stomach pain after drinking a Jagermeister digestif made with liquid nitrogen, according to the Telegraph newspaper.

After undergoing a gastrectomy to save her life, Scanlan is in serious but stable condition, according to Lancaster police.

Lancaster Royal Hospital, where the teen was treated, did not comment on the case out of "respect" for the family.

But others held nothing back. "Anything that is the least bit hazardous does not belong in the bar," said Ray Foley, editor of Bartending Magazine. "People are getting out of hand with these products to show off and not take care of their clients. This nitrogen cocktail; it's ridiculous."

Liquid nitrogen is about minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit and, if not used properly, can cause permanent frostbite or cryogenic burns. It is used primarily to flash-freeze food or to make ice cream. It also turns fresh herbs to powder and can freeze alcohol.

But in today's scene, mad scientists of mixology use it for dramatic effect to uber-chill glasses so that when served, the cocktail emits a steamy vapor.

Bartenders have to be trained and take the "utmost care," according to Sven Almenning, managing director of the Speakeasy Group in Australia, whose staff is well-trained in the art.

"A guest should never be served a drink where the nitrogen still is in liquid form, as this means it will turn into gas inside the person's body," he said. "This is akin to trying to consume an open flame from a lit Blazer cocktail."

Medical experts, who use liquid nitrogen to freeze warts and in cryosurgery, agreed.

"It's a great way to kill tissue instantaneously," said Dr. Corey Slovis, chairman of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

"I imagine what happened was it completely devitalized the tissues and froze it to the point where the gastric acid perforated the stomach," said Slovis, who did not treat Scanlan. "It would not be flexible tissue. It would be hard frozen."

Surgeons would have tried to save as much of the stomach as possible, as when repairing a perforated ulcer, he said.

Others agree that it's risky business.

"This is a dangerous practice," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, particularly as Halloween approaches and young people attempt daring stunts.

Glatter said he had even heard of a so-called "porn star martini," where liquid nitrogen is poured into champagne and other spirits.

The result can cause frostbite-like burns to the upper airway and throat, as well as the stomach. Breathing can also be compromised.

The effect can be like an explosion in the stomach. "It's not safe to ingest," he said. "Liquid nitrogen basically causes pressure to build up as it turns into a gas and can lead to perforation. ...Ultimately it can be deadly."

But celebrities in the fine art of mixology say that when used properly by trained professionals, liquid nitrogen is safe and popular with clients.

"It's mesmerizing," said Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute and partner in charge of cocktails at the trendy Booker and Dax bar at Momofuko in New York City.

"It's like so many things in life. If it is used improperly, there are hazards," he said. "A deep-fryer also has dangers when people are using it without training."

Arnold has written a primer on proper use of liquid nitrogen for aficionados.

Bartenders typically swirl it around the glass until it vaporizes, then pour in the alcohol, which has a lingering mist.

But handled improperly, it can be dangerous. A German man lost both hands several years ago when he took home a tank of liquid nitrogen and it exploded en route.

Science teachers have played tricks for years, putting liquid nitrogen in their mouths, then spitting it out. In the so-called Leidenfrost effect, a liquid in near-contact with a mass hotter than its boiling point produces an insulating vapor that keeps the liquid from boiling rapidly.

But in one famous case, the teacher's mouth was dry after talking to the class and did not have enough moisture, Arnold said, and the liquid nitrogen took the enamel off his teeth.

The first rule of using liquid nitrogen in the bar is to not to put it in the drink itself.

"It would be the same as pouring someone a cup of boiling soup in 365-degree oil," Arnold said. "The second rule is do not over-chill, otherwise you'll ruin your sense of taste -- not forever -- but like when you burn your mouth on pizza. It's weird for about an hour."

And if the liquid nitrogen does get into the cocktail itself, the bartender can see it because it floats, he said. "You can see it rolling around the top of the drink," he added