Smoke isn’t just for peaty scotch or mezcal any more.
Boundary-pushing bartenders from around the world are using unique techniques to imbue their creations with smoke. In the past, the element of smoke has usually come from a base spirit which picks up smoke as it is cooked or dried over fires. Now, however, drinks can be smoked in a variety of ways, from a smoking gun to a backyard smoker.
One of the first smoked cocktails I remember seeing was in 2007 at Portland’s Teardrop Lounge where former bartender Evan Zimmerman created his Smoke Signals cocktail, which utilized ice that had been smoked (and melted) over hickory wood, then refrozen to slowly imbue the drink with whispers of smoke. By 2010, there were seminars at Tales of the Cocktail using smoking guns. Now, “most cocktail bars have some sort of smoke element on their menus,” observes Dan Rook, head bartender at downtown Chicago’s South Water Kitchen, “but I would say its more of a staple rather than a trend. It’s a flavor profile customers look for.”
Rook’s Leatherneck cocktail utilizes a bitters that is made in-house using apple rinds that are smoked in the chef’s meat smoker.
“I’ve always enjoyed peaty smoky drinks; a mezcal old fashioned is one of my favorite drinks and, if I’m drinking scotch, I prefer an Islay,” notes Rook. He continues to explain the process behind the bitters, saying,
“Chef has a smoker in his prep kitchen and I had been thinking for a while about how I wanted to utilize it. After playing around with different bitters recipes I decided I’d use the smoker for our house Smoke Apple Chicory Bitters.”
The Leatherneck is a combination of Makers Mark and Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbons, spiced honey- brown sugar syrup, the aforementioned bitters and a topper of Fever Tree ginger beer. “You have to be careful with smoke as it will quickly overpower the other elements in the drink,” he advises.
“The key is to find that harmonious relationship where the smoke elevates to the forefront for a moment and then takes a back seat and compliments everything else in the cocktail.”
At Portland Oregon’s new Bit House Saloon, bar manager Jesse Card takes a more playful approach to smoke with his Bonfire Daiquiri, featuring Mt. Gay Black Barrel Rum, smoked rich Demerara sugar syrup, lime juice and two kinds of bitters.
“I’ve smoked syrups, spirits, glassware. I’m an old tiki nerd, I like setting sh*t on fire, what can I say?,” muses Card about his experiences playing with smoke.
“It’s a ton of fun and guests love it.” he continues. “We should take fun and levity a little more seriously in this business sometimes.” The Bonfire Daiquiri is exactly that. “At service,” he describes, “we use a smoking gun to fill the bottle with hickory and pecan wood smoke, and trap it in the swing top, so when you pour the daiquiri out, the smoke billows across the table and sticks with you while you drink.”
Card appreciates the need for showmanship, even outfitting his bar with welders blow torches in each well, “because bartending is entertainment, so you might as well make it big.” But, at the same time, his cocktail also is designed to be reminiscent of good times. “There is nothing that draws stronger emotions out of me than the smell of a good bonfire,” explains Card.
“Whether it be a Pacific Northwest campfire or a Caribbean bonfire, it evokes such vivid memories of my favorite times and places on earth.”
In San Francisco, PABU is smoking things as well, albeit in a more streamlined fashion. There, they pair Japanese whisky with different elements of smoke. Hakushu 12 year is paired with a small cinnamon stick that is plated and burned with a torch. A wine glass is inverted over the plate to capture the cinnamon smoke and add flavor to the glass into which the whisky is poured.
Similarly, Hibiki 12 year is paired with a brûléed banana. A banana slice topped with sugar is toasted so that the sugar melts and then the same method of inverting the glass is used. In this case, however, the banana is served alongside the smoked glass of whisky. While neither of these are true cocktails, they offer a new way to drink whisky, enhancing and adding to its already complex flavors.
Other spots treat guests to equally compelling tricks of the trade. At Las Vegas’ Tokyo 365, a members-only secret cocktail club on Fremont street, barman Seong Ha Lee smokes cocktails a la minute under a bell jar; in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the Orchid, Martin Farmer makes a Smoked Bloody Mary. And at Los Angeles’ Walker Inn, omakase-style cocktails all feature elements of smoke, whether through reinterpreting classics or with new creations.
Ultimately, smoke can add a layer of depth to cocktails, while also giving a talented bartender the opportunity to engage in a bit of showmanship for their guests. Perhaps Jesse Card sums it up best when he says, “[smoked cocktails are] fun and, while indeed gimmicky, can be delicious. Besides, wouldn’t you rather play with fire for $10 rather than pour another vodka and soda?”