Smoke on the Water
Cocktails starring perfect crystalline ice are among the hallmarks of today’s quality bars. Often, these mighty cubes and spheres, which add much-needed chill, texture, and viscosity, are chiseled straight from a sleek chainsaw-cut block by an adventurous bartender. These practical theatrics add yet another facet to a finely wrought drink. But from a utilitarian perspective, thoughtful ice selections ensure cocktails are served at optimal temperatures. Little is worse for customers than sipping a drink that quickly dilutes before their eyes.
To keep this essential component both playful and seductive for guests, bartenders are getting more creative with “frozen water.” For example, at Measure at the Langham Place, New York hotel, head bartender Sarah Karakaian makes lavender ice cubes for the herbaceous Yuputka cocktail, which consists of rosemary-infused Bulleit rye, lemon, and egg white. Likewise, in Washington, D.C., Luca Giovannini, head bartender at Fiola Mare, enlivens the classic Gin & Tonic with a rotating slate of seasonal ice cubes in flavors like green tea and pear.
As bartenders pay careful attention to the ice that buoys their libations, they are also taking the opportunity to explore the attributes of smoke. Together, the interplay is powerful. At Branch Line in Emeryville, California, patrons relish both realms when ordering the Date Old Fashioned. Melding date-infused rye and Lapsang Souchong–infused Angostura bitters, it’s served over a large ice cube. Zachary Brian Taylor, the bartender who dreamed it up, says, “I love incorporating elements of smoke into cocktails because it’s a natural balance to rich sweetness—and smoke always evokes fond memories of campfires.”
Nostalgic cocktails such as this typically have an attractive emotional pull on patrons based on aromatics alone—but coupled with a distinctive, rarely seen smoky flavor profile, it creates an inventive way to savor imbibing rituals.
Ranjini Bose, bartender at the New York City bar Seamstress, says her Goodnight Stella is a hit with revelers because “the Negroni has grown in popularity over the last few years. A lot of people are drawn to variations on this theme.” A jolt of smoke is infused in this spin on the original by turning the glass over a burning rosemary sprig, which is then served beside the drink on a small plate. “People get really curious about it, and they love the presentation,” she points out. “I wanted to do something interesting with Spring 44 Old Tom gin, which works great in a Negroni because of its soft herbal qualities. The smoked rosemary adds another dimension, making this a botanical-forward cocktail. You would get a different effect, say, with smoked wood chips.”
Just as Bose’s drink acquires an appealing roasted-herb quality, Griffin Elliott, head bartender at Sepia in Chicago, also relies on smoke for his own seasonal riff on the Negroni. Before dehydrating a blood orange wheel, he gives it the brûlée treatment. “By using any type of grilled or burnt citrus, you achieve a pleasant and subtle smoky flavor, whether it be incorporated within the drink or as a garnish. I like this because it adds another layer and more complexity,” he explains, pointing out how winter’s bounty of Meyer lemons and blood oranges makes the season an apt time to experiment. “Bringing the contrast of smoke and ice to a drink adds depth and balance. It’s always nice to play with opposite [profiles] like sweet and sour, hot and cold, bitter and sweet—and bring them together in a cocktail.”
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of weaving smoke into a drink is the cocktail’s ability to pair well with food. Consider Trifecta Tavern in Portland, Oregon, where dishes—like house-made sausage and calamari with chermoula and breadcrumbs—are elicited from the wood grill. Bar manager Colin Carroll responds accordingly to the rustic menu by charring different woods and infusing them into various spirits with a sous vide machine to elicit a slightly smoked flavor that replicates barrel-aging. While Scotch favorite the Bobby Burns gets amplified by maplewood, the gin-Chartreuse-sherry Alaska favors orange. “I try to mirror the food by mimicking techniques the kitchen uses. I think it’s one of the few frontiers we haven’t really explored all the way,” Carroll says. “Fire, smoke, and ice are huge parts of what we do with the cocktail program. Fire caramelizes sugars in fruit and the carbon from charring wood inherently changes what it can do to a drink. Trying to capture the essence of smoke gives many more flavor options.”
Another person making significant inroads in this sphere is Tena Jahangosha, beverage manager at Del Campo, Chef Victor Albisu’s South American grill in Washington, D.C. Here she makes such tipples as the Limonada Sucia with Tito’s vodka, grilled lemon juice, applewood-smoked simple syrup, and lavender bitters, as well as the Dark & Swarthy with Kappa Pisco, house-made ginger beer, fresh lime juice, and caramelized grilled lime. “We, the bar, like to think of ourselves as an extension of the kitchen and in adding smoke to our cocktails are reflecting what they are creatively doing with their dishes. Chef Victor’s use of charring, grilling, and smoking is unique and original, which sets his style apart from the other steakhouses in this city. We like our bar to be perceived in the same way,” she says. This vision translates to bold, complementary cocktails that amplify base flavors. “It’s amazing how the smoke makes whiskey just pop,” she points out. “The bar has a lot of pressure in keeping up with Chef Victor’s kitchen, so when I think of new cocktails, I ask, ‘What can we use to stimulate these palates to get them prepped for an experience through Chef’s menu?’”
In some cases, smoke takes on the form of liquid nitrogen, a brazen technique that Barton G. The Restaurant favors at its Miami and Los Angeles outposts. The Fresh Cucumber Nitro-Tini, for instance, brings together gin, freshly muddled cucumber, lime, and sugar, but it’s served alongside a nitrogen Popsicle which doubles as ice “so it doesn’t water down the cocktail,” points out Chef Jeff O’Neill, Barton G.’s director of culinary development. The Cooper’s Margarita, for instance, with Don Julio tequila, triple sec, and sweet and sour, is accompanied by a Grand Marnier version of the Popsicle. “The challenge is to not only serve an innovative smoking cocktail, but one where the smoke effect actually plays a role in the drink,” O’Neill adds. “Our end result is an impactful cocktail, in which flavor profiles and alcohol content transform as you drink them. As the Popsicle melts, the drink smokes out wildly and releases more alcohol.”