Cocktail pairings have met their match. The Royalton Hotel in New York City recently launched an innovative drink program that marries craft cocktails with scented wood-burning fireplaces. This is the only program of its kind in existence – and while it may sound like an outrageous concept, this unique pairing ups the ante on winter cocktails by maximizing the connections between taste, scent and memory.
Bartenders and master mixologists Joshua Brandenburg and Albie Pero have been designing the drinks menu at The Royalton together for the past four years. In an effort to utilize the hotel’s abundance of wood-burning fireplaces (a rarity in New York City), The Royalton asked its notoriously innovative bartenders to come up with some fireplace-inspired cocktails. Since both Brandenburg and Pero had such powerful memories related to firewood smoke, they wanted the concept to evolve into a full sensory experience for their patrons. The Royalton brought a wood sommelier on board to create specially scented wood chips for their fireplaces; Brandenburg and Pero cooked up smoky cocktails to match each wood scent (hickory, oak, maple, apple and pecan).
Scent and memory are inextricably linked, and olfactory triggers are powerful. Brandenburg and Pero used smoke as the vehicle to incorporate this emotional component into their menu.
“One of my favorite things about serving smoke cocktails is that people have very specific memories of smoke,” says Pero. “When people see smoke and smell pecans it reminds them of very specific things from their childhood.”
“When you get a drink in front of you, the first thing you have is a visual. The next thing you get is a sense of smell. It’s something we forget a lot in the cocktail industry and it’s not emphasized enough. If you look at liquids in any other form – like wine – the smell is emphasized. For some reason in cocktails we tend to forget that smell is the thing that’s going to get you,” explains Brandenburg.
“Smoke has been around as long as anything else, but it’s something people are playing with more now. We’re just experimenting with it in new ways and looking at creative uses for smoke in formats that aren’t typical,” says Brandenburg.
Brandenburg’s first foray into smoky cocktails was the bar’s Hickory Old Fashioned, a fun spin on the classic drink that utilizes hickory wood both pre- and post-mixing. First, the bourbon is infused with toasted hickory chips for two or three days. The drink itself is bourbon, maple whiskey, applejack, honey and ice. To finish, Brandenburg captures fresh hickory smoke in the cocktail glass for 30 seconds, creating a very fine layer of smoke oil.
“Rather than using a smoking gun or running smoke through the products, we take hickory chips and set them on fire with a brûlée torch. The moment we blow out the chips we capture the residual smoke in a glass. We’re not running smoke through it directly so we’re getting the lighter flavors,” says Brandenburg.
Pero, who describes Brandenburg’s innovation style as “methodical” while calling his own “chaos,” matched the pecan-infused fireplace with a cocktail idea based on New York City’s “Nuts for Nuts” street vendors. “I wanted to bring that very unique New York experience to the cocktails,” he says. Pero bought a smoker as soon as the idea came to him. Eventually, he settled on a recipe involving a one-hour smoke on the wood and pecans, and he created an oak-smoked pecan orgeat to mix with Woodford Reserve and Antica Carparo.
The oak-paired cocktail, called The Last Tree, celebrates the importance of this wood in the alcoholic beverage realm. As Pero says, “Oak makes all the difference in the entire world for all booze in all the planet.”
The drink begins with smoke – the bartenders set fire to a strip of oak and then create a vacuum inside a cocktail glass. The liquid coats the glass with oak oils, which create depth and add in an herbal, nutty spiciness. The drink is an unusual mixture of citrus, tequila and pine that results in a surprisingly fresh, Christmassy flavor.
“Our fireplace pairing cocktail menu is about an experience. The reason we go with smoke and scent specifically is that we try to activate all the senses,” says Pero. “One of my favorite things about serving smoke cocktails is people have very specific memories of smoke. We serve each with a great story about how they were created and where they came from and we add new memories.”
“It becomes a bit personal and subjective when you think of which scents go with which spirits and which experiences. It’s not just one flavor or smell put into five drinks. We’re taking five completely individualistic cocktails and utilizing smoke and smell in a different way each time,” explains Brandenburg.
There is no doubt that Joshua Brandenburg and Albie Pero have hit on something truly unique at The Royalton. By using smoke and scent as the bridge between memories from the past and cocktails in the present, The Royalton’s fireplace pairing concept has given a new meaning to the idea of creating a memorable drink experience.