What grabs customers’ attention better than cocktails smoked on the bar counter?
That campfire smell, the ignition device, the smoke gathering and rising — it appeals to many senses. And the cool-looking drink encourages other customers to take photos and video and then order one for themselves.
Smoked cocktails are highly Instagrammable, so it’s no wonder they’re trending. What’s the best way to add smoke to a drink? Bartenders take different approaches.
The Fire in the Hole cocktail at The Waiting Room, Portland OR, is served in a clove-smoked glass. To make it, bar manager Chazz Madrigal explains that you first place cloves in a julep strainer and set a double Old Fashioned glass over it.
Through the holes in the strainer, take a lighter to the clove until the smoke coats the inside of the glass. Combine ingredients—½ oz. each of Wray & Nephew overproof rum and Averna; 1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy; and ¼ oz. simple syrup—in a mixing glass. Stir with ice then strain into smoked glass. Top with dry cider and add a large ice cube.
At Arbella in Chicago, mixologist Eric Trousdale smokes the glass for the Fire & Spice Old Fashioned (brandy, pumpkin spice syrup, black walnut bitters and orange bitters). He soaks a cinnamon stick and star anise in brandy, removes them from brandy and places them on cedar plank and torches until smoking. He places an inverted rocks glass over burning spices to trap smoke; flips over glass and quickly adds a large ice cube and strains the cocktail over the ice and into the glass.
There are some culinary tools for smoking drinks. Bartenders at Fire Restaurant at the Art Hotel in Denver, CO, use the PolyScience Smoking Gun to create flavor and drama for The Smoked Manhattan signature cocktail (pictured atop). The hand-held Smoking Gun has a chamber for wood chips herbs, spices, etc.; when you light the ingredients in the chamber, a fan blows the smoke out through a hose.
Bartenders at Fire first spritz a brandy snifter with orange zest, then using the Smoking Gun filled with PolyScience apple wood chips, smoke the brandy snifter until the smoke is milky. They then trap with a coaster and present the drink tableside, allowing the guest to remove the coaster and then pour the drink into the smoked glass.
Killer B’s in Norwalk, CT, highlights two smoked cocktails on the menu. The Smokin’ B ($14) contains Jim Beam Black bourbon and Bittermilk smoked honey sour aromatic bitters, strained over an ice sphere and garnished with a toasted orange slice. Bite the Bulleit ($14) is Bulleit bourbon, house-made ghost pepper honey, lime juice, orange juice, and muddled jalapeños, topped with Red Bull.
Both are smoked in a glass box before customers. To ignite the device, bartenders burn maple or hickory wood chips with a butane lighter. With the cocktail already in it, smoke fills the box. After a few minutes the bartender opens the box’s door: out comes the cocktail in a gush of smoke.
The result for the Smokin’ B is a drink with heavy smoke on the nose before bourbon takes over the palate. “It’s more for the flavors on the nose,” explains Dan Velasquez, general manager. “But it also accentuates the sweetness of the bourbon.”
Anyone nearby can smell the smoke. And the whole process turns heads at the bar, and has people taking pics and video for social media. That’s part of the DNA and marketing plan for Killer B; the restaurant has emphasized both drinks since opening earlier this year.
“A lot of restaurants go out of their way for Instagram-worthy moments, but in doing so they also lose a bit of their identity,” Velasquez explains. “This really ties well into what we do.”
Another Norwalk, CT-based bar/restaurant, El Segundo, takes a different tack in smoking its Old Pal cocktail ($11). The drink contains Jack Daniels rye, Gran Classico bitters, Dolin Rouge vermouth and orange slices. For the smoke, bartenders use a blowtorch to ignite cinnamon, nutmeg and other herbs or bitters beneath an empty upturned, 750-ml. bottle.
After the bottle fills completely with smoke, bartenders pour the cocktail into the container and cap it. The liquid rests in there for about two minutes, gathering flavor from the smoke, while the bartender blowtorches the orange garnishes. When it all comes together in a glass, the drink retains smokiness on both the nose and palate.
“It smells like holiday season—like Christmas,” says Sean Nye, El Segundo bar manager.
He chose Jack Daniels rye for its higher proof, which can cut through the smoke, and opts for the bottle method because it’s a quick, effective way to smoke a cocktail.
“The smoke really holds up well, and if you have to put out 30 of these a night, it really speeds up the process,” Nye says. “You could bang out three at a time this way. This is a good drink you can build in volume.”
Nye also recommends starting with all ingredients and instruments at room temperature—especially the mixing glass. This helps better bind together the cocktail.
However you smoke cocktails, remember that it’s equal parts technique and showmanship. If done right, the end result is memorably tasty cocktail, with a production made for Instagram.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Better Bartending. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece: Ted Danson Talks Mixology, Favorite Cocktails and Drinking Buddies