Infuse drama into your cocktail hour

By / Wine + Drinks / April 10th, 2017 / 23

Smoke is hot. From brisket to trout, from chipotle to pineapple, it seems to be in just about everything. And now, it’s finally making its way out of the kitchen and bellying up to the bar.

Five or six years ago, smoky cocktails fell into the category of novelty drinks. Few dared to push the flavour profile beyond sour, sweet, bitter or tart. But the Penicillin, a scotch cocktail with a hint of smoke invented by New York bartender Sam Ross, changed all that. Since then, bartenders have taken it further, embracing the sultry taste of mezcal, smoky scotches and smoked bitters.

Aaron Male, head bartender at Toronto’s Spoke Club, says that, while he loves working with peated whiskies and mezcal, after years of playing around with different methods, he increasingly steers clear of smoky ingredients and, instead, smokes the drink, itself, à la minute. Why? He’s just giving the people what they want.

“Some people are leery of smoky, peated scotches, which they find too intense,” says Male. “And, on the other hand, you have the whisky-philes, who think doing anything to a single malt beyond adding a few drops of water is total sacrilege.”

So, rather than get into a debate over venial and mortal sins, Male has found that the best way to make everyone happy is to smoke the glass — in a sense, manufacturing his own, all-natural version of liquid smoke, custom-made to each order. For his Keyser Söze (method and recipe detailed below), for example, he torches grapefruit zest on a plank of maple wood, then covers it with a glass, which, as an added bonus, usually thrills the spectators who love watching his little show.

“Smoke is really catching on because people’s palates are becoming more educated and adventurous,” says Male. “And bartenders need to find new ways to up our game. Smoke is perfect. It’s magic, really. Because you can add a lot of flavour to a drink with very little, really.”

Male says the smoke adds a layer of complexity to drinks like his Keyser Söze, which, he points out, is really a very simple drink — a cross between a tequila sour and a paloma. And, since smoke isn’t tangible, like, say, watermelon or lemon, it captures people’s imagination. It also really only requires the purchase of a maple plank and a crème brûlée torch, so it’s a pretty easy way to infuse some drama into cocktail hour. As they say, smoke and mirrors.

keyser söze

1 1/2 oz Tromba blanco
3/4 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz vanilla-mint syrup (recipe below)
1 egg white

Place the zest from a grapefruit on a maple plank. Torch it (with a culinary torch). Place a rocks glass on top of the smoking zest and leave it there while you shake the ingredients together in a shaker over ice. Shake well and fine-strain into glass.

vanilla-mint syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh mint
1/2 vanilla bean

Combine all ingredients into saucepan; gently heat until sugar is dissolved. Cool and let mint and vanilla infuse for an hour. Bottle and refrigerate.



Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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