Smoke ’em if you got ’em

A glance at my scotch or mezcal collections should tip you off to my love of smoky flavors. Though those liquors are typically my go-to building blocks for a smoky glass at home, I’ve long marveled at the actual smoke employed to create some of my most memorable cocktails when dining out.

The full smoke

The formative moment of my smoky cocktail-sipping career, and the standard to which I hold all others, is this Vanilla Hickory Smoked Manhattan from Barchef in Toronto.

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Vanilla hickory smoked Manhattan, Barchef, July 2012

Crown Royal Cask 16, housemade cherry vanilla bitters, hickory-smoked syrup, vanilla cognac (also housemade, I believe), set in an antique cloche to pull in the flavors of smoking hickory chips and vanilla pods.

Once removed from the smoking bell jar the Manhattan and its hand-chipped ice sphere provided me with the longest, smokiest finish I’d yet experienced (at the time, I was not yet a scotch fan). By fully smoking the drink in its glass, the ice, glassware, and your very hand become part of the immersive experience.

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Barchef’s smoked Manhattan, out of the cloche and into my heart

It wasn’t until four years and 1,650 miles later that an ambitious speakeasy served me another cocktail that smoked the entire glass. Look at the brilliant updates that the W Bar has made to the smoking process:

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The W Bar in Lee’s Summit can smoke cocktails faster than your favorite bar can. Read more about them here.

That’s a patent-pending smoke set-up that (let us not mince words) draws on bong technology to smoke up to four drinks at a time, presumably with different woods and other combustible ingredients. Bartenders need only apply fire to a small screen for swirling smoke to fill the cloche.

Everything about my Barchef smoked cocktail screamed handcrafted, slow process; the W speeds that up to provide smoked cocktails in batches. This solution is fast, minimizes smoke slinging to bartenders’ hands, and accommodates multiple simultaneous orders. And the drinks by no means suffer from the decreased effort or wait time.

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Pecan-smoked Old Fashioned with hand-cut ice, the W Bar, 2016

The under-the-glass smoke

Smoking the complete drink isn’t the norm. The majority of my smoked drinks involves upending the empty glass over smouldering combustibles.

Like the Smoky Cocktail at SOT: Plantation Pineapple Rum, Ancho Reyes, Koval ginger, and house coffee bitters in a glass smoked with orange peels, banana leaves, and cinnamon. Some delightful assembly required:

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Smoky Cocktail at SOT, Kansas City, 2016. Right the glass, add the ice with the tongs provided, pour in your drink. Great presentation.

Or this heavenly concoction, the Smoke Gets in Your Eyes from Angel’s Share: Bulleit Bourbon, Cocchi Barolo Chinato, oloroso sherry, Benedictine, and bitters, served in a balloon glass of cinnamon smoke.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes at Angel’s Share, New York City, December 2016.

At a recent trip to SRO in San Francisco, my drink started with lavender smoked under a glass. (No pictures; drinking at SRO is too intimate an experience to allow for cameras or phones.)

Setting plants on fire

Let us also give a nod to the time-honored tradition of toasting garnishes to add a subtle smoky dimension. Flamed orange peels, for instance. A match-toasted bay leaf in a recent Negroni variation. Or just setting a whole dang sprig of rosemary on fire, as they did at Melrose Umbrella Company:

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The Mezcali Me Banana at Melrose Umbrella Company, Los Angeles, 2016: mezcal, agave, Giffard banane, prickly pear, grapefruit, lime, serrano/habanero salt rim, charred rosemary.

Handheld smokers

It was PBS that set me adrift into unfamiliar waters.

An episode of Steve Raichlen’s Project Smoke included a smoky cocktail using a handheld smoker.

Companies like Williams-Sonoma are happy to sell me a smoker and smoking box for home use. Amazon offers a decent prize range of handheld smoking guns.

But I have never seen a handheld smoker in use at a cocktail bar, and I wonder why.

Perhaps a gun’s potentially proprietary wood chips limit the flavors available. Surely it can’t be presentation alone, though the effort of torching scented combustibles surely adds to the drinker’s enjoyment and eventual tip.

I asked some bartenders. Jesse and Robert at Branchline in Emeryville weren’t impressed by the concept of a gun, and speculated whether it would be sufficient to flavor the drink (“You  might have to immerse the nozzle in the drink and try to impart smoke flavors in the liquid itself.”) Alex from Acme in Berkeley agreed that presentation was a huge part of a smoked drink, and recommended a kitchen torch instead.

If a smoking gun is cheating at the bar, is it nevertheless an effective tool for cocktails at home?

I plan to continue investigating smoked cocktails through consumption, experimentation, and asking actual industry folks. If the investigation justifies the purchase of both a kitchen torch and that gorgeous smoking box, well, that’s just an added bonus.

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