If you really want to wow someone, there’s nothing like starting a fire. And when it comes to smoked cocktails, the effect is about much more than presentation—although it’s certainly Instagram-worthy too.
“The aromatic qualities of smoke add a dryness that’s more of a perception, rather than a reduction of sugar. You also get more tannic qualities of the wood,” explains Ben Potts, bar manager and owner of Miami’s Beaker & Gray.
And of course there’s the smell of whatever you smoke, which contributes another layer to your drink. “The aroma excites the palate and adds depth to the flavor of the cocktail,” says Norton Christopher, bar chef at Sac-a-Lait in New Orleans.
Add it all up, and smoking adds to a cocktail’s multi-sensory experience—one you can pull off at home, with the right equipment and a few safety precautions (since you are working with fire and alcohol, after all). Follow these pro tips to create rich and smoky whisky cocktails.
Technique and Equipment
There’s more than one way to smoke a cocktail, depending on how much you want to invest and how much smoke you want to add, says Potts, who often experiments with smoked cocktails and includes them on the menu at Beaker & Grey.
The first option, which will give the lightest smoke flavor, is to smoke-rinse your glass. First, chill your glass. “Smoke tends to stick to things that are chilled,” Potts says. Prepare the cocktail, and right before you pour, take whatever you are smoking and set it on fire, preferably with a blowtorch. Do not use lighter fluid since that will impart a chemical flavor. Turn your chilled glass upside down on top of the burning ingredient (options below), covering it completely, and the smoke will stick to the sides of the glass. Once the smoke dissipates, you’re ready to pour.
Another option is to smoke-rinse the whole cocktail. Use a large vessel such as a wine decanter or pitcher with a small opening to capture the smoke. As above, after chilling the vessel, set the smoking ingredient on fire, then place the vessel on top. Let a little oxygen in—this way, the fire will burn longer and you can collect as much smoke as possible. Once you’re satisfied with your smoke (a few minutes is a good rule of thumb), pour your prepared cocktail into the vessel and swirl it around. You can let it sit, but most of the smoke flavor will happen in the first 30 seconds or so. Pour your smoky drink into a glass and enjoy.
If you plan to make smoked cocktails your specialty, consider buying a smoking gun. You can find one on Amazon for about $100. Place the smoking ingredient in the chamber at the top and use the hose to pour a controlled stream of smoke straight into your glass.
The last option creates the most intense flavor, but requires extreme caution. If you have a smoker or grill, create a smoky fire with the same wood chips or planks that you would use for meat. Make a double-boiler: put the liquid you want to smoke in a pot or heat-proof bowl, and place that inside another pot or bowl that’s filled with ice (this way your liquid won’t heat up, which will change the flavor). Set the double-boiler off the flame where it’s cooler, but can still catch the smoke.
You don’t need to be told that fire and alcohol can be a dangerous combination. Use common sense if you decide to make smoked cocktails. Don’t wear loose clothing, and tie back long hair. Consider smoking your drinks outside if you use a smoking gun. And if you’ve already had a few smoked Manhattans, it’s safest to whip up a non-smoked cocktail for the next round.
There are many ingredients you can use to create smoked cocktails, and Potts encourages experimentation. “You don’t know what something will smell like when smoked unless you get the matchbook out,” he says. While developing one particular cocktail, he smoked 10 or 15 different ingredients until he found the one with the aromatic qualities that were perfect for that drink. “Light something on fire, smell the smoke, and if it smells nice, try smoke-rinsing the glass,” he says. “If you like that, then try smoke-rinsing the cocktail in a larger vessel.”
Here are a few ingredients to try, each lending specific flavors to your cocktail:
Oak wood: can partially mimic barrel aging and accentuate the charred wood notes in whisky
Pecan wood: charred nuttiness
Rosemary: rustic, herbaceous flavor
Cinnamon: subtle sweetness and lighter smoke
Vanilla beans: sweet and light smoke
Citrus peels: use as a garnish to provide the essence on top of the cocktail
Salt: can lift a drink and enhance the full flavor profile
Ice: creates a gradual subtle smokiness as it melts (For full instructions on creating smoked ice, see the recipe for the Smoked Old Fashioned.)
You can also treat the things you smoke with added flavors. Try dashing chocolate bitters on top of wood chips, or soaking what you plan to burn in absinthe, overproof rum, peated scotch, or other highly flammable and flavored liquids.
Top Smoke and Whisky Combinations
If you’re a little shy about playing Mad Scientist with your cocktails, try these flavor pairings, which tend to work well together. Keep in mind that smoking works best for stirred cocktails.
Rye with any wood: “The spiced nature of rye works really nicely with oak, cherry, or hickory,” says Potts, adding that a smoked Manhattan is a good starter smoked cocktail.
Bourbon with corn husks: “The husks accentuate the corn in the bourbon while also providing a mild sweetness,” Christopher says.
Scotch with thyme: “Even without smoking, thyme has a smoky characteristic to it, and scotch will always work well with smoky things, even if it’s not peated,” Potts says.
Wheated bourbon with cinnamon: Since bourbon is sweet, the sweet notes of cinnamon will complement it, according to Potts.
Irish whiskey with coffee beans: “When I drink pot still Irish whiskey, the most prevalent notes are coffee and chocolate,” Potts says. “Enhancing that with coffee or even coffee beans dusted with cocoa powder would be interesting.”
Japanese whisky with citrus peels: Lighter Japanese whisky needs a delicate smoke that’s not overpowering, plus citrus peels heighten the fruity notes of the whisky.
Corn whisky with pecan wood: “The nuttiness from the pecan wood really shines with corn whiskey, providing a balance between sweet and savory characteristics,” Christopher says.
Part of the fun of smoking cocktails is the presentation. Bring the glass out on a plank or heat-proof tray with the ingredients already burning, so your guests can watch the smoke swirl. Then flip the glass and pour in the drink.
You can also use the smoked ingredients, such as cinnamon sticks and herbs, as garnishes. “At Sac-a-Lait, we serve a cocktail called Gettin Figgy Wit It,” Christopher says. “I don’t incorporate any smoke into the actual cocktail. Instead, I char a rosemary sprig as a garnish. When the guest receives the drink, the sprig is still smoking. This adds a very mild smokiness to the cocktail and is designed to create a nice aroma.”
Smoked Whisky Cocktail Recipes to Try
Ready to give it a whirl? Try these smoked variations of classics.
For Beginners: Smoked Sazerac
The Solstice Sazerac uses high-rye bourbon rather than rye whiskey, which dampens the spice flavors of the traditional Sazerac. “The cinnamon syrup adds back a baking spice element, and the cinnamon smoke mixed with orange zest adds an interesting dimension to a well-known cocktail,” explains Ben Potts, bar manager of Miami’s Beaker & Gray.
For More Advanced Smokers: Smoked Old Fashioned
Norton Christopher, bar chef at New Orlean’s Sac-a-Lait, incorporates smoked ice and citrus peels into his When Smoking Was Infashioned. The process takes some work, but makes for a drink with a lasting smoky flavor.