Wood smoke evokes all kinds of wonderful things. A campfire as a kid. A pit full of coals at a great barbecue joint. The aroma is intoxicating on its own, but bottled up—and stirred into a drink—it's indescribable. Expert barman Sother Teague showed us how a smoke infusion can give a cocktail a delicious twist.
You've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. I did not inhale (that drink).
The process of working smoke into a drink starts with a hand smoker, like the £60 Smoking Gun shown in the video above. It can infuse smoke into anything from an oven-roasted chicken to a raw spinach salad. Or gummy bears. Whatever you want. You just insert a small amount of wood chips, put the hose where you want the smoke to go, turn on the battery-operated device, and hold a lighter to the chips. Instant, thick smoke. Really slick.
When that smoke hits its target, it alters the drink's aroma. That makes a huge difference. "The aroma of a food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its flavour," according to Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation. In a drink, a smoke infusion adds a layer of savoury complexity. It isn't going to be appropriate for every cocktail, and it might even ruin some. But a smoky variation on a classic—like an Old Fashioned—can be amazing.
To serve a Smoked Old Fashioned when he worked at Rye in NYC, Sother would make one large, double-sized drink, then split it in half. He poured one glass of a normal Old Fashioned, drizzled over a perfect ball of ice and served right away. The other half went into a bottle. Sother pumped apple smoke from the Gun into the bottle, capped it off, and then the patron shook the bottle every now and then while sipping the regular Old Fashioned. By the time the smoke cleared—having infused into the drink—the glass would be ready for a refill.
Now, Sother's un-smoked Old Fashioned was possibly the best cocktail I'd ever had in my life. Seriously. It was made of magic. So when I tried the smoked Old Fashioned, I can't say I liked it better—but the contrast between the two drinks was astonishing. It was almost like an Old Fashioned made with a really smoky, peaty scotch, and served as you sat by a roaring campfire. The savory notes almost overwhelmed the sweet ones. It wouldn't become my go-to drink, but it was a fun, novel change of pace. We hit the smoke gun pretty hard—next time I might try smoking it for a shorter period, giving it a slightly lighter touch.
You can also experiment with the smoke concentration by infusing a single ingredient, rather than the whole cocktail. This can produce a much more subtle effect, as we found when Sother smoked fresh-squeezed pineapple juice for a smoky twist on a Bonnie Prince. He poured the juice into a large flat restaurant-style warming pan, pumped in the apple wood smoke, and wrapped the top in cellophane. With two openings in the wrap—one for the gun nozzle and a second to let the air vent out—the smoke flowed over the juice's surface and developed a nice thick cloud. Sother sealed up the two holes and left the smoke to be absorbed.
Ten minutes later, Sother bottled up the infused juice and used it to make a smoked-up Bonnie Prince. Here's his recipe:
- 60 ml Famous Grouse
- 30 ml of smoked pineapple juice
- Spoon maraschino syrup
- Spoon Cherry Heering
- Dash orange bitters
Shaken and strained into a chilled cup, and garnished with a wedge of smoked and grilled pineapple, the drink was subtle and quite tasty. Bonnie Princes are generally sweet, but the smoky flavours cut through the sweetness and balanced it out. All the basic flavours still came through distinctly, there was just a subtle new element in the mix. Very nice.
So, do you need a Smoking Gun in your home bar? You won't use it every day. But it's a nice trick to spice things up a bit. And even if you're not using it for drinks, how about cherry-smoked cauliflower soup? Hickory risotto? The best thing is that it's a very fast, incredibly versatile infusion. Just make sure you open the windows and deactivate your smoke detector before you start. And turn the alarm back on before you get too drunk and set your hair on fire.
Sother Teague is a former R&D chef for Alton Brown on Good Eats (Food Network) and instructor at NECI (New England Culinary Institute). He is currently consulting chef at Consulting at Proletariat (a rare, new and unusual beer bar) and the Bourgeois Pig's Brooklyn location. He is also a barman at Amor y Amargo, Prime Meats, and Booker & Dax. Follow him @CreativeDrunk on Twitter.