This month, VinePair is exploring how drinks pros are taking on old trends with modern innovations. In Old Skills, New Tricks, we examine contemporary approaches to classic cocktails and clever techniques behind the bar — plus convention-breaking practices in wine, beer, whiskey, and more.
Smoked cocktails aren’t deliberately designed for visual appeal. Ask any bartender who plays with fire behind the stick, and they’re likely to discuss how smoke adds depth and complexity to a drink. Despite this, the show just happens. As soon as smoke pours out from a decanter or a carefully removed bell jar, patrons’ heads crane in intrigue, and a question arises almost as quickly as the billowing puffs ascending from the glass: “What is that?”
The true answer goes beyond saying it’s a cool-looking beverage. A smoked cocktail contains the power to turn an Old Fashioned or Negroni you’ve had hundreds of times into something new and bewitching. And as complex as its attention-grabbing process may appear, smoking cocktails is also something home bartenders can safely do in their own abodes with the right amount of space and equipment. However, there are some steps to follow, so VinePair consulted a few bar professionals known for adding smoke to drinks for some tips to master the process.
The Science Behind the Smoke
Smoking a cocktail entices multiple senses even before it hits a drinker’s lips. “The sight of the smoke and the aroma it gives off adds this unique 3D experience to the drink,” says James Shearer, global beverage director of Zuma in Las Vegas. “It’s almost like this charred visual version of a spirit’s angel’s share.”
These sensory elements create spectacle, but the depth of flavor the smoke creates delivers satisfaction. Different factors can influence the direction these flavors take, starting with the choice of wood. For example, the Macallan barrel staves used to create Zuma’s Burning History — a riff on the Penicillin — imbue a nuanced fruity essence into the smoke. Other ingredients can also add complexity to smoke, such as dried herbs like rosemary and thyme.
A smoked cocktail also doubles as a cool chemistry experiment. When the smoke hits the glass and interacts with a drink’s other components, it transforms into a binding agent, like a near-ethereal form of bitters. “Smoke helps to smooth out the other ingredients, which allows them to blend in the best way possible,” says Ravin Buzzell, bartender at Ysidora in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “When done well, it will bring out consistency and balance in a drink.”
The smoke can also bind to a drink. Low temperatures create a reaction that causes the smoke to stick to the glass’s surface, maximizing its flavorful impact. This makes chilled glasses, or vessels large enough to hold a huge hunk of ice, the preferred glassware for smoked cocktails. However, this isn’t necessarily a hard, fast rule. “A snifter or a Cognac glass can work well on occasion,” Shearer says. “Their smaller openings trap the smoke better, which can intensify the smoke’s aromas.”
A Drink and a Show
The science of smoked cocktails takes a back seat to the show in the eyes of most guests. While the bartenders making the beverages dig its nerdy backbone, they also have an appreciation for its entertainment value. “We’re turning an Old Fashioned from a drink made in one minute to a drink made in three minutes, so it helps that it’s fun to watch it being made,” says Andrew Erickson, lead bartender at Fable Lounge in Nashville, Tenn. Erickson notes that the drink does more than entertain — it also generates sales. “When a customer sees a smoked drink served to another guest, they’ll want to try one, too.”
Some bartenders may take the drink’s inescapable show element one step further by adding extra layers to the proceedings. For instance, Buzzell purposely keeps his cherrywood smoked cardamom Old Fashioned off his menu because enough of his regulars know about the beverage. This tactic allows the drink to manifest from seemingly nowhere once it’s inevitably ordered, elevating its intrigue even further. “Not advertising the drink adds an extra element of surprise that blows guests away when it comes out, especially if they’re not familiar with smoked cocktails,” he says. “When this happens, it immediately enhances the guest experience.”
Smoking at Home
Smoking cocktails doesn’t come with a “don’t try this at home” warning — the process is safe, relatively easy, and not as pricey as you may think. If you’re an ambitious home bartender looking to up your game, you can give this technique a whirl. However, since smoking drinks is a process made of many parts, the experts have provided some basic rules of thumb to get you started.
First and foremost, the pros stress that you shouldn’t start anything until you’ve created a large enough space to safely make the drinks. Remember, you’re playing with fire. Once you’ve established this, you’re going to need some wood and some equipment. A smoking gun is a popular tool that’s user-friendly and can be easily loaded up with store-bought wood chips, but it can be an investment — the good ones run between $100 and $150. Another option is to light the wood yourself, a method that could both save you money and expand your wood choices. “You can easily pick up a cedar plank for a few bucks at Home Depot’s grilling section,” says Erickson. “You can also reach out to your local distillery to see if they have any barrel staves to spare.”
It’s also important to have a chilled decanter on hand to trap the smoke as it arises. Once the smoke is secured, pour the cocktail into the vessel and give it a slow swirl for about 30 seconds to fully infuse the smoky flavor before pouring it out. “You can find some beautiful, inexpensive decanters by stopping by your local thrift store,” Buzzell says.
Once you’ve determined how to create and capture the smoke, the options for cocktail creativity abound. Classic whiskey cocktails like the Manhattan tend to be the default option among bartenders due to the spirit’s versatility, but gin and rum-based drinks like the Negroni or the Hurricane can also work rather well with a bit of practice. So don’t be afraid to play around to see which smoked cocktails set your soul on fire.