What do camping, bacon, and cocktails have in common? Other than being awesome, they are all often infused with smoke.
Though cocktails may seem like the odd man out, using smoke to add complexity to drinks dates back almost to the roots of the craft cocktail movement. Like many other experiments, it’s been taken to the logical extreme: Bartenders have smoked just about every ingredient behind the bar.
According to master mixologist Jim Meehan, it’s probably an outgrowth of the barbecue trend in the food world. Since it can be a new flavor for bartenders, it can also be the next logical step for bartenders who have experimented with more traditional taste combinations.
Despite its modern appeal, it’s likely that humans had to evolve to enjoy the flavor of smoke, though we’re not actually able to taste it; humans lack specific receptors in our taste buds for smokiness. Luckily for us, a food or drink’s flavor comes from three sources: scent, taste, and physical reactions (like texture or the heat of a chili pepper). For smoke, almost all of its flavor comes from its distinctive smell.
Since smell triggers memories more than any other sense, our associations between smoke and summer barbecues or nights spent camping make it an interesting ingredient to play with.
There are two ways to add smoke to a drink: either by infusing it with smoke, or by simply using a smoky ingredient. These days, there are plenty of ways to infuse a cocktail with smoke. Tutorials abound for smoking ice on your grill or infusing a whole drink with a Smoking Gun. Dedicated products like Liquid Smoke also make it easy to instantaneously add some char with just a few drops.
The craft cocktail movement has also spawned a host of smoky ingredients. From smoked salmon vodka to hickory liqueur, the world of spirits is awash with new smoke. But two liquors, Scotch whisky and mezcal, hold the distinction as being smoky originals.
Scotch is one of the most polarizing categories on the market. Though it can be mild and malty, it’s best known for being earthy and smoky. But this distinctive flavor doesn’t come from the water or the distillation process. Instead, the smoke is imbued beforehand.
After the barley used to make the Scotch is sourced, it’s soaked to start the germination process. To stop it from sprouting, the grain is heated, completing the process known as malting. Since peat, which is commonly available in Scotland, is an excellent fuel, it’s often used to stoke the fire. The more peat used, the smokier the resulting whisky.
Mezcal, which is often described as a spicy, smoky tequila, is produced rather differently. This Mexican staple is made by cooking agave hearts in an underground oven. By lining these ovens with volcanic rocks and heating the hearts over an open flame, this multi-day process smokes and caramelizes the agave while also cooking it through.
Unlike infusing partial or whole cocktails, using smoky ingredients comes with a unique set of challenges. First, making a cocktail normally requires dilution. Diluting any spirit lowers the alcohol content. It also releases new aromatic compounds while masking others, which changes the flavor of the booze. As a result, a mild, nuanced Scotch or mezcal can become a one-note smoke bomb when it’s mixed into a cocktail. Also, Scotch and some mezcals have a reputation of being liquors you drink solo. Some purists may shy away from these cocktails, but that means more for us.
Despite the risks, bartenders through the ages have taken pains to perfect drinks with smoky ingredients. Classics like the suave Rob Roy and the curious Blood & Sand are now joined by modern takes on smoky cocktails. Be sure to ask your bartender for guidance if you're in the mood for some smokiness.