Surely you’ve experienced — either as a patron or while working — the phenomenon of selling a drink from across the room when one patron watches another patron’s order come out from behind the bar. Going further yet, a bar guest can snap a photo or video and post it to their social media channel, putting your drink in front of the eyes of dozens, even hundreds, of potential patrons. This kind of sharing results in not only bar buzz, but can equate to new bar-goers and increased business.
“These days, we have taken cocktails to a whole new level,” notes Karma Jamyang, bartender at Charlie Palmer at The Knick, an upscale bar and restaurant in NYC’s The Knickerbocker Hotel. “Customers want to see their drink with their eyes first, and they want to show other people what they’re drinking. After that, it’s about the flavor.”
In other words, don’t underestimate the power of an awe-inspiring presentation.
Of course, you can up the ante all kinds of ways. Unconventional ice is particularly trendy at the moment, and you can impress with garnishes, peculiar vessels and various theatrics. Today we’re talking about smoke, though, and its ability to dazzle eyes, noses and taste buds.
We’ll start with the most traditional way to smoke a drink: with a smoke gun. The Knick does several variations of an impressive smoked cocktail, including Jamyang’s popular Smokey Bobby, a hickory-smoked snifter with bourbon, Carpano, Benedictine and Angostura bitters. (You can catch a glimpse of this trick in action here.)
To create the drink, bartenders first smoke the snifter with hickory woodchips and then place a cap on top. The drink is presented to the patron as a glass full of twisting, billowing smoke. After setting it down, the cap is removed and the server pours the drink inside.
What happens from there is a truly beautiful display of softly wafting smoke that twirls upward, past the patron’s nostrils, and into the air. It’s just as much an aromatic experience as it is a visual one, and once the smoke has dissipated, the mild campfire scent lingers within the snifter for the drinker to enjoy while sipping.
The smoke gun is probably the most effective way to achieve a smoked cocktail, and knowing how to wield it is a matter of a.) practice, b.) following the instruction manual and c.) knowing what you want to achieve.
That means messing around with the gun on your own time and reading up on and experimenting with different types of woodchips. Each will produce its own essence and therefore affect the overall flavor profile of your cocktail.
Some additional tips from Jamyang: keep your smoke gun clean to prevent tar buildup, don’t fill the smoke gun too full with woodchips, and don’t smoke the glass too much or you’ll spoil the drink. In other words, keep it clean, keep it quick, and keep it tasty.
Created by Trevor Schneider of Reyka Vodka, the Smoke and Flowers cocktail marries sweet, floral notes of elderflower with the smokiness of mezcal and uses smoked thyme sprigs captured in a glass dome for an elevated olfactory experience and smoky taste. Photo by Phillip Van Nostrand.
Other ways to smoke a cocktail
While a smoke gun is certainly the most traditional, and perhaps easiest, way to create a smoked cocktail, you don’t have to limit yourself. We asked other bartenders what methods they’ve used, or seen others use.
Smoked herbs: “You can burn an herb and place it on a plate with the glass [upside down and] on top,” says Juyoung Kang, lead mixologist at Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas. This creates a subtle, smoked herb effect and taste, versus the campfire-esque smoke created with wood chips or staves.
Smoked fruit: “I’ve always been a fan of smoking fruits and making a syrup out of them,” says Charlie Moore, lead bartender at Knife Dallas. While this doesn’t have a visual impact, it can certainly affect the overall taste of your drink. You can also add pieces of smoked fruit as a garnish. Try pairing it with one of the other smoking techniques if you want a powerful presentation.
Trapped smoke: Here’s an opportunity to play with smoke and ice. Juyoung says that one of the coolest smoked cocktails he’s seen involved an ice ball filled with smoke. The ball of ice was hollowed out, filled with smoke and then cracked open in front of the patron to release the smoke.
Vaporization: “Another way to add smoke to a cocktail is to add the illusion of smoke, without the flavor of smoke, by vaporization,” says Ashela Richardson, California brand ambassador for Flor de Caña. “An example: using dry ice. You can do this with stirred cocktails that are served up with no carbonation.” This is a great way to pack a visual punch without affecting the flavor of your drink.
Smoky spirits: To further infuse the “taste” of smoke into your cocktail, look to spirits. Peated scotch and mezcal are two classics. Again, if you’re going for presentation, it’s best to combine a smoky spirit with a visual smoke technique.
Smoking garnish: Another subtle way to add smoke to a cocktail is to light your garnish on fire and then blow the garnish out just before serving the drink. Herbs and pine needles work exceptionally well for this, notes Anthony Schmidt, beverage director of CH Projects in San Diego. “The aroma is initially present, then fleeting, and the sip is so different,” he says. “I love that play on the ‘drinking experience’ where it’s an evolving process.”