There was a time when the smoking gun became every bar’s claim to fame. You couldn’t log onto Instagram without seeing someone place an Old Fashioned into a McGyvered patio wall sconce and blasting it with white plumes. You simply weren’t cool unless you smoked. “All the older guys are doing it!” you’d yell to your GM placing Amazon orders.
Now, I’m no doctor — I’m not even allowed in most parts of a hospital without being asked to leave — but I have a diagnosis to share today: Smoking cocktails has become harmful to the health of our bar experiences.
You may want to see some accreditation, so let’s jump back over a decade to when I made my first kippered cocktail. It was 2011, and as I walked into the kitchen of the restaurant where I worked behind the bar, I noticed a glue-gun-type contraption with a hose attached to it. Smoke billowed from the device and into a cambro (industry lingo for: tall, plastic storage bucket) filled with brown liquid and a pork butt. A line cook held a lighter above some cedar chips, while the roar of what sounded like an air mattress motor whirred relentlessly. He smiled at me, nodding his head — we were both thinking the same thing: “I gotta get one of these!” I’ll be honest, though, my first thought included me, my roommate, a wet towel under the door, and some dirt weed sold by — you guessed it — this line cook.
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Smoked cocktails had started appearing on menus all over, and not to be outdone, I decided to go the whole hog on one drink. I set my sights on the Manhattan — a simple and delicious cocktail that is so easily executed it was just begging to have a labor cost attached to it.
Did I prepare the drink as normal then use a smoke dome to create mystique and wonder in front my guests? Well, no. This was my first bar gig and I was filled with… let’s just call it gusto for now.
Charles Joly didn’t have a commercially available hot boxes for rocks glasses in Williams Sonoma stores at the time. There wasn’t even a modified bell jar that I knew of. So I used what was at my disposal: a slow shift and a line cook fresh from a cigarette break smelling of Red Bull. We mis en placed a cambro bucket, some plastic wrap, cedar, and a Bic lighter. We were Frankenstein and Igor creating a monster.
Walking the finished drink around I offered it to anyone who would share their nostrils and beckoned them to take a whiff. Mixologically fearless? Yes. Powerful? Not quite.
“It tastes fine,” said the guy working pantry. “I hate this,” said the chef. As the hint of cedar smoke from the leaky cambro and my interest seeped out into oblivion, I wondered if this smoke thing had legs.
For a while there, I believed it did. But it’s all become too much now — watching our drinks being prepared and then, right when you think they’re going to be served, disappear into a little crate to get smoked. All we want is a mouthwatering orange peel expressed over a rye Old Fashioned so we can raise a glass to our coworkers and say something like “Man, that Don Draper sure can drink!”
When perfectly executed on an edited social media post, a smoked cocktail can be a glamorous, downright badass thing — even cooler than dry ice in a plastic Jack O’ Lantern, which is very cool. But “Instagram vs. Reality” memes exist for a reason.
Bartenders: You aren’t doing anyone any favors when you’re in the middle of a rush trying to ignite a piece of kindling with a book of wet matches. In the time it took to pollute a perfectly potable cocktail, I could have walked down the street to a dive bar, ordered a shaken Manhattan with Shirley Temple cherries, bought a $20 pack of Winstons, and picked up then kicked a half-a-pack-a-day habit.
Maybe it’s a sign of the times that we’re looking for the most violent way to add flavor to a drink (I’m talking about something more than a cocktail here). But as we apply aggressive techniques we lose nuance, balance, and decency. Perhaps we should instead scale back and remember the good type of smoke we’ve had all along (nope, not vaping), like a tried and true mezcal or a familiar Islay Scotch.
Consider what the smoke is doing to us as drinkers, too. You don’t cook a hot dog on a stick and then linger above the flames while you eat it. And think about how many people get the left swipe when they mention they smoke on Tinder.
If we don’t change our ways we’ll be forced to watch this “future of mixology” join the ranks of whiskey stones, Millennium Falcon ice molds, and bazinga! socks on the back wall Target endcap around Father’s Day. No, the next time someone waves the menu of smoked Old Fashioneds in my direction, it’ll be met with a simple “No thanks. I recently quit.”