Bartenders have been playing with smoke for years, enriching drinks by adding scents and flavors that are hard to replicate using traditional cocktail ingredients. Now, they’re branching out, and savvy mixologists are experimenting with smoke to further benefit from this aromatic and visual trend. While smoke has long had a home in whisk(e)y-based drinks like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, it’s also finding new playgrounds with Tequila, rum, and even gin.
At Ophelia Lounge in New York City, bar director Amir Babayoff offers an upscale take on the Old Fashioned and has listed a creative riff on the Gin & Tonic that both incorporate smoke. The Ophelia’s Ascension ($17) comprises Maker’s Mark Bourbon, smoked habanero pepper-infused Del Maguey Vida mezcal, The Bitter Truth Aromatic bitters, and palm syrup, stirred and then poured into a smoked bulb-shaped bottle that traps the smoke inside. The bar has also offered the A La Española ($16), a seasonal gin and tonic mixing Levantine gin, Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, Choya Umeshu plum wine, Vicario Herba Luisa lemon verbena liqueur, and oregano, served in a smoked glass. Babayoff uses a smoking gun and a variety of wood chips to create the smoke.
“Our smoked cocktails are very popular and well received,” Babayoff says. “The spot where they’re built (with the smoking gun) is a focal point for the bar and draws a lot of attention. The gun allows us to control how much smoke goes into a drink, which impacts the intensity. Smoke can be introduced in many ways, not only visually but by smoking certain spirits and ingredients, by lighting a garnish on fire, or by spraying a smokey mist over a drink.”
In Austin, Texas, The Roosevelt Room bar manager Matthew Korzelius introduces smoke by torching garnishes and incorporating incense. The bar’s signature drink The Cigar Box ($15) mixes Del Maguey Vida mezcal with lapsang souchong tea syrup, a house-made tobacco tincture, and lavender bitters, served atop a crystal ashtray with a torched cinnamon stick made to look like a cigar. The venue also serves the Black Pearl ($16), a boozy combination of Johnnie Walker Black and Talisker Storm Scotches, Smith & Cross rum, Barolo Chinato and Nux Alpina Walnut liqueurs, Abbot’s bitters, charcoal powder, and edible liquid sliver, served in a treasure chest that’s been smoked with clove incense.
“The smoke is a crowd-pleasing element,” Korzelius says, noting that some guests are drawn to the aroma and others are enticed by the visual appeal. “The smoke adds mystery and drama while still enhancing the drink,” he adds. “It can easily be overpowering or aggressive if it’s overdone. We try to remember that more than 75% of what we commonly think of as taste is actually experienced through our sense of smell, so our focus is on the aromatic element and we let what we put in the glass hold its own ground.”
Playing with smoke behind the bar is definitely a conversation starter. Mike Moreno, the owner of Osito’s Tap in Chicago, says his customers are always excited to see something different, and his smoked concoctions are no exception. Moreno puts drinks into a glass case with wood chips, which are then lit to create smoke, and patrons can watch the full experience. Osito’s Tap lists the El Oscuro ($13), made with Four Roses Bourbon, Fee Brothers Orange and Chocolate bitters, and house-made ancho chile reduction, smoked with hickory, and the Humito ($12), comprising Maestro Dobel Tequila that’s smoked by itself and then mixed with lime juice and roasted corn and orgeat syrups.
“Smoke allows you to impart flavors that otherwise aren’t possible or are far too labor-intensive,” Moreno explains. “Smoke gives cocktails more body and more intense flavors and the presentation is gorgeous as the smoke dances off the top of the drink. It adds an extra layer and customers love the experience and the show.”