If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably grown up being told time and time again to not play with fire. Well, now that we are adults, we’re making an exception. When it comes to handcrafting cocktails at home, the options are endless, but no element can add quite the depth that smoke can. When handled safely and with a creative flair, adding a smokiness to your drinks can result in layers of flavor and wow your guests. Whether you prefer a smoke-rinsed glass or like to serve libations with a smoldering garnish, here’s what you need to know.
By Christina Cannon|Photography by Emily Pérez Long
Smoke Rinsing a Glass
One of the best options when it comes to imparting a smoky flavor in a cocktail is to cloak your serving glass in actual smoke. This method will give your drink the lightest flavor and is unlikely to overpower your guests.
First, you’ll want to chill your glass ahead of time so the smoke will cling to the sides of the glass, and have your cocktail prepared and ready to pour. Next, select your tinder. This can be a wood chip or stick like oak, maple, or hickory, or you can play with herbs and fruits such as citrus peel, rosemary, or a cinnamon stick.
Now that you’ve set the stage, it’s time to make the magic happen. Set your ingredient on fire, extinguish it, and turn your chilled glass upside down on top of the burning tinder. After the smoke dissipates, pour your cocktail into the glass and voilà.
Smoke Rinsinga Cocktail
Similar to rinsing a glass in smoke, you can also rinse your entire drink in a smoke-filled container. For this, you’ll want to use a larger vessel such as a cocktail shaker, pitcher, or decanter, and don’t forget to chill it!
Once again, you need to light your tinder on fire, but this time, you may want to place the mouth of your container over the burning object instead of extinguishing it ahead of time. Allowing the fire to burn a little longer or adding a little extra oxygen will ensure that you have enough smoke to fill the container.
Wait until the smoke dissipates, and pour your drink into the container. Swirl or shake it for about 30 seconds before pouring it into a serving glass. It may not sound like long, but half a minute should be enough to impart a strong smokiness. This will provide a stronger flavor than rinsing a glass and is a great alternative for those looking for a rich drink.
Using a Smoke Gun or Grill
For those looking for an even more streamlined approach, a smoke gun is a popular choice. This small investment will allow you to place your tinder directly in a chamber and use a hose to pour the corresponding smoke directly into an empty glass. This is perhaps the most flavor-filled option of them all and is sure to deliver an elevated aroma and taste.
Yet another option for physically infusing smoke into a liquid or glass is to use a double boiler on a grill. While it may take a little extra effort, it’s effective all the same. Here, you’ll want to pour the drink you’re wanting to smoke into a heat-proof bowl or pot. Place that bowl into another pot or bowl that is filled with ice. This will ensure your liquid won’t heat up, which could change the flavor.
Put your double boiler on a grill, being mindful to place it on a rack that is away from a direct flame but somewhere where it can still catch the smoke. This can be a tried-and-true way to create a cocktail that complements the flavor in a grilled dish if the same tinder is used.
Using Smoky Spirits
Creating an actual fire isn’t the only way to enjoy savory sipping, however. There are plenty of spirits already on the market that do just that and require no additional effort to get the nuances that smoke provides. The most common spirits to carry these flavors are peated scotch and mezcal, although there are plenty of whiskeys, bourbons, and even some vodkas that fit the bill.
One example is Benriach’s 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, which gets its flavor from oak and Oloroso sherry casks and is matured for a decade in bourbon barrels. This spirit smells of honey and toasted oak, while the taste includes notes of almond and spiced vanilla. Trace hints of smoke can be found throughout, making this a great option for a drink that is more subtle in character.
Similarly, GlenDronach’s 12-year-old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky uses Oloroso sherry casks blended with whiskey from Pedro Ximénez casks for a richer color and flavor. Spices such as vanilla, ginger, and those used in mulled wine make this another intriguing option, particularly for cooler months.
And we’d certainly be amiss to not mention the king of smoky spirits: mezcal. One bottle you can’t go wrong with is Del Maguey’s Vida Single Village Mezcal. While it may be lighter in color and carry its fair share of fruity notes, such as banana and tangerine, don’t be fooled. The agave used in this liquor is prepared the traditional way – roasted alongside rocks, wood, or charcoal in in-ground pits, sometimes for several days – giving it a truly unique smoky flavor.
Smoking the Garnish
While rinsing a container in smoke or purchasing an already smoky spirit may give you the flavor you’re looking for, garnishing a drink is an art form in and of itself and is another way you can introduce smokiness. This part of the process provides ample room for creativity and can result in a one-of-a-kind cocktail.
Try crafting a margarita with a smoked salt rim, or turn to an extinguished cinnamon stick for a sweeter, lighter smoke. Charring a citrus peel can add depth to an old fashioned, and using pecan wood will provide a nuttiness not found in other timbers.
If you feel a little overwhelmed by the endless options, experts suggest letting the aroma guide you. Smoke a handful of different ingredients and incorporate the one you like the smell of. This can be a powerful course of action, especially when you are serving a drink where the garnish is actively still smoking.
Another professional tip? Have fun with it! There is no right or wrong way to make a smoked libation, and the spirits, tinder, and methods you use should reflect your personal style and taste.