Over-the-top pyrotechnics. Ultra-intense metal welding. Attempting to recreate the Olympic torch. There are a lot of things that come with a “don’t try this at home!” warning, and most of them involve fire. When it comes to cocktails, though, the recent rise in bartenders blazing up to smartly elevate the flavor profile and presentation of their drinks makes the desire to give it a whirl almost irresistible.
So when you’re (gulp) ready to add a little bit of heat to your home bar routine, the following tips, tricks and recipes below from seasoned flame-throwing bartenders will ensure your cocktail is properly aglow—without burning the house down.
1. Brulee All Day
“One pretty basic first move is to juice a piece of citrus (lemon or live), turn it inside out to create a bowl, drop a bit of lemon essential oil inside and light it on fire,” says Julian Cox, the beverage director of Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. “We do something similar in our Zombie cocktail at Three Dots and a Dash. It’ll produce an extremely hot blue flame, so remember to tell people to blow it out before they try to drink it! Also, if you light a flame, then dash cinnamon into it, the cinnamon will spark like little fireworks.
“The end product of this one smells amazing. I think adding fire to cocktail presentation, especially in Tiki, is just really fun and totally primordial; it harkens back to man’s fascination with fire from the start of time. It doesn’t get much better.”
There is, however, a fine line between perfectly caramelized and, well, charred. “For the home bartender, make sure the fruit doesn’t burn, lest it add unnecessary bitterness to your drink,” says Lauren Schell of Seaworthy in New Orleans.
“In the case of the Holywater, the fire caramelizes the sugar, giving the drink depth and added richness,” says Schell. “It’s a crucial element of balance, in addition to being eye-catching and purposefully interactive.” The Chartreuse-meets-sugar fire inside a hollowed-out lime might be simple to create but is a visual stunner while simultaneously helping to balance out the drink’s citrus notes.
2. Put Safety First
While lighting up drinks can be an amazingly simple way to deepen cocktails when done correctly, there’s no doubt that fire and booze don’t have the best history of playing together nicely. In keeping, it’s always important to take serious precautions.
“Safety is always key. Make sure that the spirit you are lighting hasn’t spilled anywhere, including on your hands,” says Schell. “Even a great drink won’t take away the pain of a burn. Equally important, keep the flame away from tiny hands and cat tails.”
“For flaming drinks, it’s a good idea to make those drinks early on in the evening, if you get my drift,” says Jane Danger from Mother of Pearl in New York City. “Also, do not pour directly from the bottle onto a flame. Pour into another smaller vessel first.”
3. Set Herbs Ablaze
One of the easiest, and most aromatic, jumping-off points for playing with cocktails alight is by charring herbs. The key is that those herbs are fresh.
“At Mother of Pearl, we like to dip small, mint bunches into 151, position them on the top of a crushed ice drink and set that on fire,” says Danger. “The mint being green and full of water, it will only hold so much 151 and makes sure it will go out.”
Bartender Carlos Perez of Chicago’s Nellcote agrees and also suggests adding the fresh herbs in the cocktail to reinforce the aroma. “The best way to get the essence out without burning is to add [the herb] in with all the ingredients in the shaker and shake, but then make sure to double-strain before serving.”
Nellcote’s Smoke on the Water is a day-drinking-ready cocktail that’s simultaneously elegant and ready to blaze. In order to get the most out of your rosemary, follow a process. “Soak fresh rosemary upside down with 100-proof alcohol for a good five minutes,” says Perez. “Put the rosemary upright in the cocktail, and light right before the first sip.”
4. Smoke It If You’ve Got It
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke, and when it comes to autumnal cocktails, nothing adds a layer of warmth to a drink faster than coating the inside of a glass with woodsy spicy-laden smoke. When you’re ready to tackle this project, Joe Pereira of Herbs & Rye in Las Vegas recommends getting really DIY and starting with a little trip to the hardware store.
“Hit up the barbecue section of a hardware store (or Walmart). There are cedar planks there for $6. Then pick up a personal blow torch for $25. Finally, go to the grocery store and purchase whole cinnamon sticks and cloves.”
After assembling all of the items, it’s time to get things smoking. “Place spices on board, flame them with the blowtorch, and then place a cold rocks glass over the flame. Let the smoke fill the glass. Flip the glass back over, place your spirit in the vessel, and enjoy the amazing aromas,” he says, noting that the technique is really good for a room-temperature Manhattan served without ice.
If you’re looking to experiment even further, try the Maple Smoked Rumhattan from Toronto’s Rush Lane & Co., which enlists the help of a maple plank for smoking the inside of a glass (and reinforces Canadian pride, of course). “In order to maple-smoke the glass, use a personal blowtorch, char the maple plank with the flame, and then cover the smoking surface with the glass,” says Zak Doy of Rush Lane & Co. “The smoke will coat the inside of the glass with a maple aromatic.”