Flame academy: Smoked cocktails

Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles

04 April 2016

There’s smoke on the bar top and fire in the sky, as venues across the country burn, smoke, roast and cook their ingredients. Alice Lascelles investigates what is (literally) this season’s hottest trend.

Fire has been part of the bartender’s arsenal ever since Jerry Thomas started throwing Blue Blazers back in the mid-19th Century. But the latest generation of culinary-minded mixologists are now finding new (or really, really old) ways to use flames, heat and smoke to inject flavour – and theatre – into their cocktail recipes, without taking their eyebrows off. Here are some of the techniques that are cookin’ in cocktail-land right now…

The one incendiary ingredient you’ll find on just about every cocktail list at the moment is, of course, smoke. From smoked Old Fashioneds, fumigated cocktail cherries and Bloody Marys laced with barbecued salt, through to mezcal-topped Margaritas, aromatised cocktail coupes and drinks that chuff like Mount Vesuvius, this primal aroma has been infiltrating bars in a multitude of forms.

At Locke & Remedy in Cardiff, smoke is used to create drinks like the Smoked Cherry Manhattan, which they pre-batch and then seal in a Kilner jar for half an hour with a cloud of wood smoke. ‘We use hickory chips but there is a vast range of wood you can use to give you different flavours,’ says general manager Ed Foster. When the bar’s not too busy, they make this drink to order, from scratch, and then serve the cocktail inside a glass bell jar full of smoke for maximum theatre.

At Sexy Fish in London, the visual impact of smoke is also put to good use in the Bruce Tea, a tequila-based twist on a Negroni served from a frozen, cast-iron teapot. At the last minute, Chinese chrysanthemum smoke is introduced into the pot using a smoking gun, so that it billows from the spout as the drink is brought to the table. ‘The fun with this cocktail is they get  cold drink that looks hot,’ explains bar manager Matteo Cazzaniga. ‘But the smoke also introduces a nice floral, camomile note to the drink, to contrast with flavours which can be quite masculine,’ he adds.

Smoked Cherry Manhattan
Locke & Remedy, Cardiff

Glass: Coupette
Garnish: Maraschino cherry
Method: Pre-batch and store in a
large jar with room for hickory chip
smoke. Close the lid and smoke for
30 minutes, shaking occasionally.

To serve, stir down on ice with 5ml
syrup from a Luxardo Maraschino
Cherries jar and garnish with a cherry.

37.5ml Bulleit Bourbon
12.5ml Jim Beam Red Stag
5ml Lillet Blanc
5ml Heering Cherry Liqueur
5ml Lillet Rouge

Sharp shooting
Smoking guns are fun, but it’s important to exercise some restraint, warns Josh Powell, head bartender of Soho’s 68 and Boston. ‘When pulled off it can look amazing. The downside though is that the gun can blow excessive amounts of smoke into the vessel or drink. It’s a little harder to control, using extra dexterity to smoothly use the device.’

When it comes to smoking cocktails, “a little goes a long way” is certainly true

- Josh Powell

Powell prefers to smoke his glassware by hand. For his Call of the Wild, he serves 40ml Woodford Reserve, 20ml peach-infused Lillet Rouge, 20ml grapefruit cordial, and two dashes of chocolate bitters stirred down and strained into a frozen coupe which has been held upside down for a few seconds over a mound of smouldering wood chips.

‘When it comes to smoking cocktails, the old adage “a little goes a long way” is certainly true,’ he says. Tony Conigliaro, who has created smoked wines in the style of the Romans for London restaurant Grain Store and incense-laced cocktails for his bar 69 Colebrooke Row, agrees. ‘Smoke is all about subtlety, people too often overdo it.’ For him, this is one reason why the bell jar method of smoking is less desirable, as it’s too hard to control.

‘Smoke guns at the point of service aren’t great either as they can make the whole place smell. Smoking a glass is much more personal,’ he says, ‘then you’re not invading everyone’s space.’

Burning issues
Conigliaro has his own ideas on smoking materials, too. ‘Don’t use stuff that’s got an aroma that’s too heavy, or if you do, use a lighter wood with a more delicate aroma to balance it out,’ he says.

‘For example, in our Avignon cocktail, we blend redwood, cedarwood, frankincense and black pepper to make a food-grade incense which we then burn in carefully-weighed amounts so it’s consistent. We do this in a box we had custom-made to take 20 glasses and we do this before service – the glasses then sit in the box until we need them.’

Another smoky creation from Conigliaro is the new Santeria cocktail at 69 Colebrooke Row, which marries Havana Club Selección de Maestros with earthy rooibos tea, lapsang syrup and ‘voodoo incense’ – proof that, at least some of the time, you can have smoke without fire.

Monkey Kong
The Gibson, London

Glass: Monkey-shaped
coconut vessel
Garnish: Banana leaf and
roasted edamame on the side
Method: Muddle the ingredients in the shaker, shake and fine-strain into glass.

50ml Monkey Shoulder infused with roasted edamame beans*
20ml lime juice
Half a fresh mangosteed
1 whole rambutan
2 dashes of coconut vinegar
A little korean red pepper paste

*To do the infusion: Use 15-20
roasted edamame beans per bottle and leave to infuse for three to four days. Strain before use.

The new Gibson in Clerkenwell may be named after a minimalist classic, but it has a cocktail list that’s pimped to the max with obscure ingredients and artful cooking techniques. There’s bourbon baked tea, ash-flavoured cacao butter, grilled rice powder and plenty of smoke, as well as a whole host of ingredients which have, more unusually, been roasted.

‘Roasting and toasting can give you all sorts of new flavours,’ explains the bar’s director Marian Beke. ‘But these techniques don’t just change the flavour, they can change the texture too.’

One ingredient that gets a roasting at The Gibson is the sweet potato-like aipim. ‘It increases the sweetness, giving it a Christmassy, caramelised chestnut-like flavour,’ says Beke, who uses roast aipim as a purée in a bourbon cocktail called The Mighty Zorba.

‘For something like this it’s very important that you dry roast it,’ warns Beke. ‘If you add oil it will separate when you shake it. A great gadget for dry roasting is the Andrew James 12-litre halogen oven (c£50 from Amazon), which is really small and fits behind a bar, but switch it on and almost straight away it’s at 250°C. You can roast, bake, fry, everything – and it’s all-glass too so you can see what’s happening.’

Roasted barley tea is also used (as a syrup) in a whisky drink inspired by the Chinese tradition of adding roasted rice to green tea. ‘We dry-roast the barley on a hot pan, which gives it a caramelised sweetness and a slight smokiness, and then add it to boiling water to make a tea which we then mix with carob to make a syrup,’ explains Beke.

Coffee beans get most of their distinctive flavour from the roasting process too, a fact which inspired Beke to create the Monkey Kong, a drink made with Scotch infused with edamame beans put through a regular coffee roaster [see recipe above] – the flavour, he says, is much like coffee.

At Sager + Wilde Restaurant in East London, bar manager Marcis Dzelzainis has lately been turning his back on hi-tech gadgetry in favour of the wood-fired grill outside, using it to make singed and slow-cooked ingredients for cocktails such as the Quemado.

Named after the Spanish word for ‘burnt’, this Screwdriver-like cocktail is made using oranges which have been charred on the grill.

‘I wanted to find a way to use up the surplus of oranges we had left over after making zests from Old Fashioneds, so after our chef had done a lamb shoulder on the grill I got the fire going again and cooked the oranges on it for five or six hours until they had a charred, caramelised flavour, with just a hint of bittersweet, smoky savouriness. We then wrap these in clingfilm and juice them to order,' he says.

Sager + Wilde Restaurant, London

Glass: Highball
Garnish: Singed orange slice
Method: Shake all ingredients with
ice, strain over ice and top with the
juice of a charred orange.

50ml Chase English Oak Smoked Vodka
15ml sugar syrup (1:1)
15ml fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Juice of a charred orange

The Quemado’s orange slice garnish is also singed with a blowtorch. ‘I really love the striking, vibrant colours, black and orange, which also help to signify what’s in the drink,’ says Dzelzainis.

'Burnt flavours of a different sort are also showcased in two drinks using Dzelzainis’ own ‘burnt honey syrup’. ‘This is an ingredient chefs have been using for a long time,’ he explains, ‘as it makes the honey less cloying, giving you more nuttiness, honeycomb flavours and a slight floral-ness.'

The syrup is used in the Montrachet, a tribute to Burgundy’s famous AOC made with Chablis and homemade toasted coconut vodka, as well as the Marie Antoinette, a sparkler made with rose, white tea and jasmine vodka.

‘Gently heat 500g of honey in a pot and let it heat up until the honey starts to boil up and honeycomb,’ says Dzelzainis. ‘As soon as this happens, take it off the heat and add 300ml of water to cool the mixture down, keep stirring till the water is integrated and you have a syrup. Cool in an ice bath and it is ready to use. Be careful – the honey will be extremely hot, so handle with extreme care.'

At Soho’s latest barbecue restaurant Shotgun, James Stevenson has exploited the in-house house wood grill to create an abundance of smoky drinksi ncluding a Mimosa twist with smoked clementines and a Ramos Gin Fizz that’s made with milk which is grilled and then smoked to almondy-nuttiness (a feat too complicated to go into here).

Carré Cuit
Shotgun, London

Small coupette
Garnish: Coffee-infused cherry
Method: Vacuum-pack all four ingredients in a plastic bag then place in a water bath set at 62°C for four hours. Cool in an ice bath and refrigerate overnight. To serve, stir 60ml over ice with one dash each of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. Strain into the glass.To pre-batch a litre:
312ml Rittenhouse Rye 100
312ml Le Réviseur VS
312ml Cocchi di Torino 
62ml Bénédictine DOM

For a slow-cooking approach, however, he eschews naked flames in favour of a bain-marie, which allows him to make drinks such as the Carré Cuit, a twist on New Orleans’ famous Vieux Carré which is literally ‘cooked’ or ‘cuit’ to give it a more mellow, integrated flavour.

‘By cooking it really gently over a long period of time you emulate some of the effects of oxidation, so it’s almost like fast-ageing it,’ he says. ‘The result is that the flavours settle down, and mingle together and soften a bit more. You get a little more of those slightly sherried flavours too, which are really nice. And the equipment’s not very expensive – I bought my water bath for £60.’

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