Between molecular mixology, mezcal and scotch, the vapor somehow seeped into cocktail glasses
Back at the turn of this century, when we were all obsessed with the Cosmopolitan, smoke was barely a wisp on the cocktail scene. The genre’s only notable drink was the Smoky Martini, which called for gin and the tiniest splash of blended—not actually smoky—scotch. Then menus started to feature a few vintage scotch drinks, like Blood and Sand and Mamie Taylor, with the faintest tendrils of smoke. But as dark spirits became more popular, the time was right for new flavors to accompany them.
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE
The two smokiest spirits are certain scotch whiskies and mezcal. Scotch’s smoky taste comes from “peated” barley, which gets its flavor during the malting process before fermentation. In times past, the wetted grain was dried over burning peat.
These days, most barley is malted in driers in industrial facilities where peat fires aren’t required, but these places can produce smoky peated barley for distillers who want it. If there is a capital of smoky scotch, it would be Islay, a small island off the western coast of Scotland and home to brands including Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Laphroaig. The flavor profile is so closely associated with the region that “Islay” is shorthand for “smoky whisky.”
Artisan mezcal is also replete with smoke. When it is made traditionally, the hearts of the agave plants are baked in an underground pit before being fermented and distilled. Mezcal can be intensely smoky and even a bit rubbery (the tasting note “tire fire” has come up), but as with Islay whisky, small-batch mezcal has its devoted fans.
Since a large percentage of those fans are bartenders, both Islay whisky and mezcal have found their way into all sorts of drinks, a splash and a dash at a time. One early entry in the smoky-drink category was the Penicillin from Sam Ross of Milk & Honey in New York, a cocktail of ginger, honey, lemon and blended scotch, with a small float of Islay. Created in 2005, the libation has become a popular smoke drink, likely put on more menus in the past two years than in the previous five combined.
While spirits-based smoke cocktails were slowly gaining traction in classic and speakeasy-style bars, smoke was being used more literally in modernist restaurants and those with a DIY aesthetic. During the first wave of molecular mixology (a term currently as unpopular with the people who practice it as it was back in 2006, when the trend caught fire), Eben Freeman in New York become known for smoking Coca-Cola syrup over cherry wood.
Soon bartenders were smoking all manner of ingredients, even ice. The crafty mixologists of Portland pioneered the process of melting ice in the presence of smoke, then refreezing it to trap the flavor. They injected smoke into bottles to infuse the spirits within. Bartenders used stove-top smokers and barbecue grills to smoke fruits that were then pureed into syrups or infused into bitters and tinctures. Others took the practice tableside, lighting wood chips and filling glasses with smoke before serving.
Eschewed term or not, molecular mixology is experiencing a resurgence at such newcomer establishments as Chicago’s Aviary and New York’s Booker & Dax. The techniques and tools pioneered in molecular bars have spread, and bartenders have gone high tech, using equipment like the PolyScience Smoking Gun or Volcano Vaporizer to add smoke on the spot to shakers, mixing glasses, bell jars and bottles.
What may have started with a splash of smoke through Islay or mezcal has begun to evolve. Currently you’re more likely to get a full pour of the smoked spirit rather than just a hint, as drinkers have grown fond of full-flavored cocktails.
To counter the blast of smoke, bartenders are using equally robust mixers. These include bolder sweeteners like honey, spicy ingredients like ginger, amplified juices like pineapple gomme syrup and floral flavors like chamomile tea and elder-flower liqueur. Coincidentally or not, honey, ginger and florals are some of the other most popular flavors on drink menus today.
With smoke firmly established as an in-demand flavor, bartenders have also begun to expand their sources. They’ve taken to infusing already smoky varieties of tea such as lapsang souchong, pu’er and gunpowder into syrups or spirits. There is a new craze for tobacco, usually found in the form of bitters and tinctures rather than larger infusions. (Nicotine is toxic in higher quantities.) And some bartenders are setting bay leaves, sage, flowers, cigars, even pine needles aflame to bring out the different essences.
The tenders at 1886 Bar in Pasadena created a winter menu built around the theme of smoke, using tobacco bitters, edible cigarettes (made from vanilla paper), maple-wood smoke and edible ash (made with vanilla, orange and cream). And now the trend has gone international: For his Clark County Cousin, Michael Callahan of 28 Hong Kong Street in Singapore includes Islay whisky and grilled peach marmalade served in a smoked glass.
A mere five years ago, the smoke drink seemed like a gimmick; today it’s a menu staple, one of the largest cocktail trends in some time. Consider it flavorful evidence of the bright flame of darker spirits.
THE MEXICAN PIANO
by TIM ZOHN and ETHAN TERRY of AQ, San Francisco
2 ounces Espolon Tequila Blanco
¾ ounce huckleberry-tarragon syrup
¾ ounce lime juice
Pinch of salt
2 bay leaves
Place four cups huckleberries in medium saucepan and cover with water. Tie 10 sprigs of tarragon with twine and add to pan. Bring to boil, then simmer until reduced by 25 percent. Remove tarragon and puree reduction with immersion blender. Put though semifine strainer, then place the reduction and equal amount of sugar in a pan and cook on medium until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool.
Combine tequila, huckleberry-tarragon syrup, lime juice and salt in a shaker and toss well. Place bay leaves in a rocks glass and briefly apply blowtorch until they smoke but don’t ignite, then quickly cover with ice. Pour while ice is still smoking. Garnish with lime wheel.
OAXACAN THROUGH ITALY
by GIOVANNI MARTINEZ of Sadie, Los Angeles
1 ounce Del Maguey
1 ounce Cynar
1 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Pour liquid ingredients over cracked ice and strain into stemmed cocktail glass. Singe orange peel and use as garnish.
by DANIEL ZACHARCZUK of Bar/Kitchen, Los Angeles
2 ounces Bowmore Legend Scotch
1 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth
¼ ounce St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters (equal parts Angostura Orange, Regan’s and Fee Brothers)
Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice, then strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
by JACOB GRIER of Metrovino, Portland
2 ounces gin
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce Yellow Chartreuse
½ ounce lapsang souchong syrup (equal parts sugar and brewed tea)
Pour all ingredients into shaker, then serve on rocks. Garnish with lemon twist.
CLARK COUNTY COUSIN
by MICHAEL CALLAHAN of 28 Hong Kong Street, Singapore
1 ½ ounces Four Roses
Yellow Label Bourbon
½ ounce black-pepper Laphroaig
1 ounce grilled peach marmalade
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
BLACK PEPPER–INFUSED LAPHROAIG
Soak a 10-to-1 ratio of Laphroaig to whole black peppercorns for 24 hours. Strain.
GRILLED PEACH MARMALADE
1 cup water
3 cans peach halves, liquid reserved
3 cups sugar
2 cups canned-peach juice
Thinly slice oranges and lemons and place in saucepan covered with water. Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Cover and steep 20 minutes. Grill peach halves until deep char lines appear. Puree peaches and add to saucepan. Heat, adding sugar slowly, then drizzling in peach juice to taste. Mix well, chill and store separately in a jar.
Pour drink ingredients into shaker with ice and toss well. With blowtorch, light one applewood chip on a ceramic tile. Place rocks glass atop to smother flame and capture smoke. Strain into smoked glass. Garnish with orchid and orange slice.
Adapted from SAM ROSS of Milk & Honey, New York
1 inch-long piece peeled ginger
2 ounces blended scotch (such as Famous Grouse)
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce honey syrup (3 parts honey to 1 part hot water)
¼ ounce Islay whisky (such as Laphroaig)
Muddle ginger in bottom of shaker to release its juice. Add scotch, lemon juice and honey syrup, then fill with ice and toss well. Strain into rocks glass filled with ice and float Islay on top.