Can’t get enough smoke in your whisky? Bartender Charles Joly, the 2014 Global Bartending Champion and co-founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, likes to flavor spirits and cocktails using cold-smoke devices that add tantalizing barbecue and smokehouse flavors, but without the meat-searing heat. “Aroma is where the party happens,” he says. “The more senses you can engage, the more you engage the drinker, the more memorable experience they’ll have.”
Now it’s easy for at-home bartenders to do likewise, with the arrival of handheld and bartop smokers that turn any dram into a tasty and dramatic event. The key is to add smoke while maintaining balance. “You don’t want to feel like you have your face in a campfire the whole time you’re drinking,” Joly says. “If I was going to smoke an Old-Fashioned, let’s say, I want it to be just one layer. I want you to taste the whiskey, the bitters, the citrus oil, and just that touch of smoke.”
Joly says that smoke can enhance just about any drink. Aged spirits are “a layup,” he says, as smoke naturally enhances most whiskies. He’s smoked whisky using everything from wood to spices (cinnamon is a go-to). Once you have the tools, the process is simple: briefly surround the finished drink with a little smoke and let it work its magic for about ten seconds. “It’s mellower that way and sticks to the glass really well.” Avoid going for the heavy-metal concert effect. “People think they need this thick cloud, which is no good for anybody. You’ll flood the room.”
For inspiration, Joly suggests thinking about cocktail flavors that would be enhanced by or partner well with smoke. “My mind goes to a Bloody Mary, where the umami and spiciness and the tomatoes really go with the smoke,” he says. “Also, I did a cold-brew coffee with mocha and cocoa nibs and the smoke really tied them together.” Experimentation and creativity often yield pleasant surprises. According to Joly, “Once you get into it, it’s really about imagination.”
In Search of the Smoking Gun
Choose your flavor weapon for home-smoked cocktails
Breville/PolyScience The Smoking Gun Pro Smoke Infuser—$150
An easy handheld that runs on four AA batteries.
Super-Aladin Handheld Smoker—$218
This so-called “Ferrari of handheld smokers” is heavy duty and fit for commercial use. Runs on four AA
Gourmia Portable Infusion Smoker—$60
This compact infusion smoker uses cool smoke to add flavor to food and drink. You can use it with or without a box or smoke chamber.
Crafthouse by Fortessa Cocktail Smoking Box—$250
Joly helped design this model, which has two doors and includes a PolyScience smoking gun, as well as hickory and applewood chips.
Different Smokes to Try
Joly has used cedar smoke to enhance a variety of scotch cocktails, especially when using peated whisky; it lends aromas reminiscent of a cigar box. Try smoking a Rob Roy or a Penicillin with cedar.
For even more flavor, soak wood in aromatic oils or bourbon. Used bourbon barrels make an ideal wood for use with your favorite smoker.
To smoke liquid ingredients, like simple syrup for a Mint Julep or tomato juice for a Bloody Mary, just pour your liquid into a small mason jar with a lid until it’s two-thirds full, add a very small amount of smoke, seal it, then shake it up. After the smoke disappears, open it and taste. Add more smoke as needed. Store the liquid as you would normally and give it a taste just before using to see if the smoke needs a boost. Joly also smokes spirits directly. “Cachaça, the rustic Brazilian cane spirit, is also a fun one to smoke,” he says.
If you prefer your whisky on some smoky rocks, smoke some water using the jar method above, then pour it into an ice tray and cover it with plastic wrap before freezing.
Joly occasionally smokes a liquid ingredient and the final cocktail—for taste and aroma, respectively. For his Double-Smoked Coffee Old-Fashioned, Joly makes coffee simple syrup by combining equal parts brewed coffee and sugar, stirring over low heat until dissolved, then smoking it using the jar method above. Mix up your favorite Old-Fashioned using the syrup. “Just quick-hit it on top with smoke after that and it’s fantastic.”