You order a drink and a slate tablet appears in front of you. On the tablet, the bartender ignites a small pile of woodchips and covers it with a rocks glass that fills with white fog. The glass is then quickly upturned and the bartender adds a stirred cocktail. The smoke slowly drifts away as everyone around you furiously strains their index fingers on Instagram.
Whether poured from a billowing decanter, revealed from a plume-filled bell jar, or risen from the wisps of a dramatically opened treasure chest, smoked cocktails look amazing—that is absolutely true. But they have other traits in common, too—they’re imprecise, inconsistent, and gimmicky.
When the lignin molecules in burning wood go through a process called pyrolysis—from the Greek for “separation by fire”—ideally what separates into the vapor are all the wonderful aromatic elements we attribute to smoke, and even some vanilla and clove notes. Done improperly, though, and the fire can release acrid, charcoal, and stale flavors into the cocktail. And many bars use butane torches to light the wood, which can add undesirable flavors to the smoke as well.
Excellence in a cocktail program is measured in precision and consistency—a standard that is hard to achieve with smoke. Those offering smoked cocktails are trying their best to get the “oohs” and “aahs” with presentation. While that may be effective in the moment, the cocktail will taste different every time it’s ordered, and the presentation becomes a condescending ploy to trick guests into doing marketing for the bar. It’s short-sighted, selfish, and rude to make someone pay $12 for a quick show followed by an encore of mediocre flavor.
If you’re a home bartender wanting to serve a couple of drinks with a theatrical display, smoking a cocktail is definitely a crowd-pleaser. But if you’re a beverage director looking to add a smokey edge to your cocktails, investigate other strategies like smoked spirits, smoked fruit purees or syrups, or smoked garnishes and salts. Anyone with access to the internet can make a cocktail look fancy when it hits the table, but it takes real imagination to make something beautiful and delicious that guests can count on.
U Can’t Torch This
2 ounces Ilegal Mezcal Joven
¾ ounce Small Hand Foods Pomegranate Grenadine
¾ ounce Grilled Lime Juice*
Garnish: smoked salt half-rim (available online or in specialty spice stores)
Combine, shake over ice, and strain.
* Grilled Lime Juice: On a grill or grill pan, grill lime halves face down on high heat until slightly charred. Juice.