Bar Talk: Smoky Sensation

Bartenders incorporate tobacco as a flavorful yet taboo cocktail component.

The Lawless cocktail blends Bourbon, malört, tobacco-infused bitters and sugar, served in a glass smoked with vanilla custard tobacco.
The Lawless cocktail blends Bourbon, malört, tobacco-infused bitters and sugar, served in a glass smoked with vanilla custard tobacco. (Photo by Celine Rille)

With a widespread ban on smoking in bars, inventive cocktail makers are looking for alternative ways to keep tobacco in the mix, and they’ve found it by adding the ingredient to their drinks. The practice isn’t common, but a handful of savvy mixologists have incorporated smoke and tobacco flavors into their repertoire. From tobacco bitters and infused spirits to smoked glasses, drinks-makers have found ways to bring tobacco back inside the bar.

Stephanie Teslar, the head bartender at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails in Phoenix, came up with a drink called the Lawless ($12), which uses tobacco-enhanced bitters and pipe tobacco smoke. The cocktail has garnered national attention and become a top-seller despite being one of the highest-priced and most labor-intensive options on the menu. The Lawless mixes St. George Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Bäska Snaps med malört liqueur, house-made Truck Stop bitters that are infused with cocoa, tobacco, and coffee, and Demerara sugar. Before the drink is poured, Teslar smokes the glass with vanilla custard pipe tobacco for 20 seconds. She says the smoke boosts the drink’s olfactory elements, creating a sensation similar to smoking a cigar.

“The drink is theatrical—a lot of people order and ask questions about it,” Teslar explains. “The Lawless outdoes all of our vodka cocktails. On busy nights, we sell as many as 35 to 40.” For customers concerned about its health effects, she says the tobacco content in the bitters is very small. While Teslar notes that mixing tobacco into cocktails is an interesting trend, she doubts it will become widespread.

In Washington, D.C., Bar Charley offers The Stepdad ($18), made with Kelt Tour du Monde VSOP Grand Champagne Cognac, Cynar amaro and house-made pipe tobacco bitters, poured over a large block of ice into a glass that’s been smoked over a torched cedar plank. General manager Carlo Bruno says the tobacco complements the Cognac well. “The Stepdad is very different from the other drinks on our menu,” he notes. “We recommend that people start the night with that cocktail so their senses aren’t dulled by other drinks. We serve quite a few.” Bruno adds that the cocktail catches the eyes of customers. “As soon as one comes out, people ask about it, and then more orders go out soon after,” he says, noting the tobacco content is minimal and used solely to enhance the drink’s taste.

Nearby, Jack Rose Dining Saloon has offered the Surgeon’s General Warning ($13), made with Old Bardstown Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Cherry Heering liqueur, tobacco-infused simple syrup, and orange and lemon juices. Just outside of D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia, the speakeasy-style Bar PX has listed the Smoker’s Delight ($13), mixing Woodford Reserve Bourbon, lemon, honey, and a house-made syrup comprising sugar, water and dried tobacco. Across the country, Father’s Office in Los Angeles has the Oaxacan Fizz ($10), which contains San Juan del Rio mezcal, Cynar, tobacco syrup, lemon and seltzer.

While mixologists are pushing the tobacco cocktail trend, drinks marketers have launched niche products like Jade LiqueursPerique Tobacco liqueur, International Spirits’ Ivanabitch Tobacco and Menthol Tobacco vodkas, and New Zealand’s Stolen Coffee & Cigarettes Spiced rum. The Ivanabitch and Stolen brands employ tobacco flavoring, but are nicotine free, while Perique liqueur is made with real Louisiana tobacco that undergoes a proprietary process to capture the flavor and remove harmful components. Perique is available in 20 international markets ($40 to $50 a 750-ml. bottle), but it’s awaiting approval in the United States.

“We capture the aromatic elements that most people find pleasing, including non–tobacco users,” says Jade Liqueurs founder and president T.A. Breaux. “These notes of brandy, tea, iodine and leather add a distinct layer of aromatics to an array of cocktails and lend themselves well to many types of spirits and even Champagne.” Breaux says there are definite health risks involved in using real tobacco in drinks, but adds that his product doesn’t suffer from those effects. “Consumers are often wary that it may taste like chewing tobacco, but fortunately that isn’t the case,” Breaux explains. “Still, tobacco is likely to stay on the fringe as a drinks ingredient.”