Even in this day and age, magic impresses us, what with movies like Doctor Strange and Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, both from fall of 2016, exploring mystical realms, and Las Vegas packed to the rafters with magical acts year-round. Not to mention buzzy The Magicians started season two on Syfy last week, and Magicians: Life in the Impossible is a new documentary released November 2016 and coming to Netflix February 13. So it only makes sense that a plethora of awe-inspiring cocktails with magical elements would be trending on bar menus around the globe.
Of course, tricky food and drinks have become something of a norm at molecular gastronomy meccas like The Aviary in Chicago and Spain’s former El Bulli. But now, drinks that smoke, sparkle, change color or otherwise invoke a wow factor beyond glassware and creative garnishes seem to be popping up out of nowhere on more mainstream bar menus around the country and around the world—like magic.*
*As far as we know, no actual magic was used in the construction of these drinks. Craftsmanship and science, on the other hand, are on full display here.
Cocktails That Smoke
Adding smoke to a drink became popular a few years ago, but it still never ceases to dazzle. Generally, a small bit of wood or herbs is charred to smoking and trapped with a bell jar. Sometimes the smoke is pumped into a drink, and sometimes it’s trapped in the serving glass itself to add a dusky flavor and aroma to the drink.
That’s what Ben Paré, of New York’s Sanctuary T did with the Momma’s Breakfast. The bold vanilla and spice notes found in aged rum (he uses Afrohead Briland 7-year-old) and the toffee overtones of cold-brew coffee, smoked cloves (along with a cinnamon demerara syrup and cardamom bitters) are enhanced by burning a large pinch of cloves and flipping a chilled brandy snifter over the resulting smoke. Adding a “smoky stick” (beef stick) as garnish completes the drink.
At ROKC, a ramen, oyster and cocktail bar in NYC’s Harlem, pretty much the entire cocktail menu, crafted by former Angel’s Share bartender Shigefumi “Shige” Kabashima, is magical. There are drinks served inside bird’s nests and conch shells and drinks that glow or are set on fire. Each boasts the same attention to quality you find at Angel’s Share, with an overlay of fun that Shige calls his “New York City accent.” Of course, there’s a smoke-themed drink named, simply enough, the Smoke, made with a savory mix of bourbon, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Cynar and house bitters. The whole drink is then enshrouded in a cloud of cinnamon stick smoke.
Cocktails That Glow
Booze and fire have put on a great show together since Jerry Thomas introduced the Blue Blazer in the 1860s. For the most part, the technique is reserved for party bars. But recently, other venues have begun incorporating light shows into their drinks.
The sexy, subterranean cocktail den Slowly Shirley has been producing Instagram-worthy drinks for almost two years. The Cleopatra, a Tiki-style cocktail, is a bright-green drink that arrives in a large Hurricane glass wrapped in a pandan leaf. But grabbing the attention this past fall was the Perla Negra created by head bartender Jim Kearns. A pitch-black blend of Santa Teresa 1796 rum, arak, kalamansi lime, orange juice, honey, activated charcoal and ginger, packed into a crystal skull glass and topped with crushed ice. A votive candle in the middle of the ice illuminates this surprisingly romantic drink for two.
This past December, Holiday-themed pop-up bars appeared all over the world, celebrating the magic of Christmas and Hanukkah. Wintry cocktails arrived in Santa mugs, vintage glassware and paired with dreidels. At LOCL, inside the NYLO hotel on New York’s Upper West Side, Cody Goldstein and his team grabbed headlines with a cocktail served inside a snow globe, but it wasn’t the only visual stunner on the menu. The Puck’s Shadow (bourbon, banana, walnut and mole bitters) allowed guests to roast their own marshmallow over a toasty in-glass fire, thanks to a scooped-out lime filled with high-proof booze.
Cocktails That Change Color
Perhaps the most popular “magical” ingredient showing up in drinks from California to Melbourne this past year has been the butterfly pea flower. The edible Southeast Asian blossom, brand name b’Lure, infuses clear drinks with an intense indigo tone. Even better? Add a little lemon or lime juice (or any high-acid ingredient) at the end of building a cocktail, and the color shifts from blue to pink or purple.
Jamie Boudreau, the founder of Canon in Seattle, is frequently on the cutting edge of the cocktail scene. He’s also not above having a little fun with his drink menu. The Magic the Gathering features gin, Dimmi Liquore di Milano, sparkling wine, orange and pea flower, served in a cut-crystal flute complete with smoking dry ice. The pea flower extract adds a bit of sweetness to an herbaceous, celebratory and pretty cocktail.
One of the great DIY aspects of b’Lure is its accessibility. No need for a high-tech equipment or hours of prep. Squeeze a few drops into your drink, et voila! The Color Changing Martini, from bartender Desiree Bacala at Public Belt in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, is beautiful and tasty but also easy to recreate at home. The cocktail features gin, ginger liqueur, b’Lure and simple syrup, plus a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice that provide the wow factor. You can also freeze the citrus into ice cubes, and let the miracle extract slowly infuse the drink. (Get the recipe here.)
Cocktails That Are Off the Wall
While most bars might feature a drink or two on their menu geared toward spectacle, occasionally you’ll land at a spot where the wow factor defines the entire experience. At The Aviary, for example, drinks are gelled, smoked and served inside inventive glassware alongside edible menus. Meanwhile, at the recently shuttered (but moving locations) Booker and Dax in New York City, drinks were clarified in a centrifuge or brought to boiling via a red-hot poker stuck in the glass. Like a great magic act, many have to be seen to be believed.
At the appropriately named Café ArtScience, which opened in Cambridge, Mass., two years ago, inventor and co-founder Dave Edwards applies Harvard-level intrigue to drinks that smoke, sputter and spark. The “breathable” Manhattan, a vaporized cocktail you inhale through straws, might be the bar’s most well-known concoction, created using Edwards’ Le Whaf method. But you can also enjoy the WhafTiki, billed as the “ultimate Tiki drink.” Elements of the deconstructed cocktail appear as solid, liquid and vapor. Vaporized alcohol “smoke” is trapped under a sugar and cachaça cylinder, and the liquid component is a blend of rums, burnt cinnamon syrup and clarified lime juice. The ingredients (and states of matter) slowly come together as the ice melts.
Sometimes magic happens where you least expect it. In Stanthorpe, Queensland (population 5,385), on the east coast of Australia in wine country, sits a family-owned and -operated bar called Viscosity. Step inside this little nondescript gem, and bartenders will pour you neon-colored concoctions from science flasks into beakers and tubes. The science-themed cocktails, with clever names like the Rubix Tube and Atom Blob, combine different colored alcohols, oils and other liquids to create layers and snaking ribbons of bright yellow, green, blue and red components dancing in the glass. Add gelled boozy “pearls,” dry ice and other lab-appropriate ingredients, and what you get is a whole lot of fun, a little magic and joyous works of art. (Here’s a video of a few of those cocktails.)
“My parents and I have made everything from scratch in the bar, from the lighting to the bar itself and even a four-player arcade machine from an old wine barrel,” says bar owner Kinsey Johnson. “The menu, featuring all-original recipes, was designed by me.” At any given time, you’ll find 24 vibrant shooters and 25 cocktails, offered up on their own or in test tube flights.