On Smoke in Cocktails

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My good friend Evan Zimmerman is something of a mad scientist when it comes to cocktails. When I’m looking for inspiration, I often head across town to his bar, the Woodsman Tavern in Portland to sit and learn from him. On one of my most recent visits, he pulled a trick out of his sleeve that I’d heard whispers of, but never had the opportunity to witness in person: a cocktail imbued with smoke. As he prepared my drink in the traditional manner, he pulled out a stick  of Palo Santo wood, a South American varietal similar in aroma to frankincense or myrrh, and lit it like a piece of incense. Over this stick he inverted a glass bottle, allowing the glowing ember to smolder before pouring the drink into the bottle to mingle with the smoke, which he then served to me over ice while my neighbors at the bar oohed and ahhed.

Now that cocktails are very much back in fashion, bartenders all over are looking to push the traditional boundaries of flavor. No longer content with the traditional formulas such as Sours, Juleps and Manhattans, today’s cutting-edge bartenders are looking toward more savory and unexpected flavors in their cocktails. Enter: smoke. In everything from a Bloody Mary made with smoked tomatoes, to bitters made with chipotle peppers, smoke is making its way onto the cocktail stage.

But smoky flavors can be a very polarizing for some folks. While deemed perfectly natural in food, such as barbecue and cured meats, smoky cocktails can be something of a hard sell. My experience behind the bar has taught me that even the most ardent fan of spirits such as tequila or scotch can be turned off my their smoked counterparts, mezcal and Islay whisky. Even those with allergies to the pollen of some trees can have those symptoms triggered by food and drink smoked with the same wood.

But what I learned from tasting those first sips at Evan’s is that by using non-traditional woods that are milder in flavor than, say, mesquite or peat, a more subtle layer of aromas can be added to a drink without overpowering the base flavors. What unfolded before me was a complex, rich cocktail with a perfectly-selected smoke flavor that paired subtly with the other elements in the drink.

HOLY ROLLER

1.5 oz Punt e Mes
.75 oz Briottet Liqueur de Rose
.75 oz Old Grand Dad 114 proof Bourbon

Combine all liquid ingredients in a mixing glass and stir to chill. While the drink is chilling, ignite a piece of Palo Santo wood until it begins to smoke like a stick of incense. Invert a chilled 6-ounce bottle and fill it with the Palo Santo smoke. Strain the chilled cocktail into the smoke-filled bottle and quickly cork it to trap the smoke. Let the drink sit or swirl it for a few seconds then uncork and pour into the chilled rocks glass.

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