3 Steps to Smokier Cocktails

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Somewhere between the Penicillin—ginger, honey, lemon, and Scotch; concocted by bartender Sam Ross at Milk & Honey in New York City in 2005—and the bourbon-based Dragon’s Breath I drank from a mesquite smoke–filled brandy snifter at a cocktail lounge in Scottsdale, the American cocktail got smoked.

I mean this quite literally: Wood smoke can turn a cocktail you’ve sipped a hundred times into a beverage that makes you marvel.

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Think of it as barbecue you can drink. That can end up tasting very different depending on the method you use. Here are the three ways to add smoke to cocktails:

1. Smoky Spirits

The ultimate smoky spirit is Scotch whisky, which owes its distinctive iodine-smoke flavor to the peat. Distillers use this coal-like fuel to roast the barleycorns before mashing and fermenting. The smokiest Scotches come from the island of Islay—in particular from the two great distilleries: Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

Mezcal (sometimes written mescal) is made in Mexico’s Oaxaca region by roasting the hearts of agave cactus in a wood fire-heated stone pit. Maybe your vision of mezcal involves the puerile thrill of eating the worm found in mid-market mezcals—a pastime popular when I was in college. Look beyond it. A new generation of single village mezcals, typified by Del Maguey, possess the finesse of a great cognac. They should definitely be on your bar shelf.

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2. Smoky Flavors

There’s a lot of em! They include:

  • Chipotle chiles (smoked jalapeños). The perfect fuel for spicing up a Margarita or Bloody Mary.
  • Chipotle bitters or barbecue bitters. Try using one instead of the commonplace Angostura. One good brand is Bitter End.
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  • Pimenton, Spanish smoked paprika. The next time you make a bloody Mary, try rubbing the rim of the glass with cut lime, then dipping it in a shallow bowl of pimenton.
  • Beef jerky or crisply fried bacon. Use a strip as a swizzle stick.
  • Liquid smoke. There’s no substitute for real wood smoke from a smoker or smoke gun or smoker, of course, but liquid smoke—a natural distilled product made from real wood—comes in handy as a last resort. Use sparingly—a drop or two goes a long way.
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3. Actual Smoke

How well equipped is your home bar? Jigger? Check. Shaker? Check. Hawthorne strainer? Check. Smoking gun? Huh?

The handheld smoker is the latest weapon in a barman’s (not to mention barbecue fanatic’s) arsenal. They come in two basic models, but both work on a similar principle. You load in the hardwood sawdust of your choice, turn on the fan, and shoot smoke into your favorite cocktail. Excellent just got better.

Weapon #1: The Smoking Gun by PolyScience: It looks like a black plastic handheld hair drier. You put hardwood sawdust in the smoke chamber, switch on the battery-powered fan, and light the sawdust with a match. For smoking cocktails and other beverages, a rubber tube fits on the end of the Smoking Gun that you can simply insert in the liquid. Cover the glass or bowl with plastic wrap and fill with smoke. Repeat as necessary.

Weapon #2: The Aladin Smoker: Chefs all over the world have been using this smoker for everything from sea scallops to cocktails. Shaped like an upright metal cylinder, the Aladin has a fan in the bottom section, a sawdust holder at the top, and a smoke chamber with a flexible plastic hose for directing the smoke.

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To smoke a cocktail with wood smoke, you have a few options:

  • Fill an inverted bar glass with smoke. Tightly cover the glass with a coaster and turn it back over. Let stand for 1 to 2 minutes to coat the inside of the glass with smoke flavor. Add the cocktail and serve immediately, with the glass still smoking. For instance, see the Dragon’s Breath cocktail.

  • Mix the cocktail in a bar shaker or glass. Cover the top with plastic wrap, leaving one edge open for the rubber smoking tube. Insert the tube into the drink so the end hits the bottom. Fire the smoking gun to fill the shaker with smoke. Quickly remove the hose and seal the top of the shaker with plastic. Let stand for 3 to 4 minutes, then uncover and stir in the smoke with a bar spoon. Repeated as needed to achieve the desired degree of smokiness. If you need a recipe, here’s the Smoky Mary.

  • To smoke punches, fruit juices, mixers, or large batch cocktails, place the drink a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Insert the smoking hose and smoke and stir as described above.

  • Ice cubes! Place ice cubes in a smoker and cold smoke (keep the temperature below 90°F). Smoke the ice cubes for 40 to 60 minutes. Yes, they’ll melt. Refreeze the water in ice cube trays. Bingo—smoked ice cubes. (I learned this trick from the bartender at the Tavern at the Broadmoor Resort.)

For more about smoking cocktails—and food!—Steven's new book comes out May 10.

Tags: Cocktail, Smoke, Alcohol-Free Drinks, Tips & Techniques