Smoked cocktails tend to be polarizing among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. For many connoisseurs who’ve been following trends for years, smoking cocktails may seem old hat. But, as is the case with most trends, these initially became trendy for a reason: Smoked cocktails, when done right, can be truly delicious. Even though they’re no longer new, that’s no reason to leave them behind entirely.
There are a few methods for smoking cocktails: the smoking gun; a smoking plank; smoking chambers; simply torching an herb or spice; or the new-ish smoke top, the latest innovation popping up at bars across America. Regardless of which method you use, the outcome is a cocktail which has been augmented aromatically by a smoked element.
In theory, many things can be lit on fire to add aromatic appeal, but some are more effective, and favorable, than others. Wood chips, such as hickory, cherry, maple, and oak, are complementary aromas in spirit-forward cocktails (for instance, in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan), or in select cocktails that use an aged spirit as the base. Meanwhile, the more delicate, earthy smoke from an herb or spice generally proves to be less overwhelming and, therefore, more versatile, pairing well with spirituous serves and tiki or tropical cocktails as well.
In a nutshell, smoking cocktails requires thoughtful intent and purpose; you shouldn’t just add smoke to a drink for the sake of it because of the visual appeal. By treating smoke as another component within a cocktail—just as you would with citrus, for example—it can add depth and complexity in a way that’s thought-provoking and exciting. And, if you enjoy cocktails paired with food, smoked drinks can pair incredibly well with hearty dishes, such as steaks, roasted vegetables, and many other options.
For some smoked-cocktail drinkspiration, these are five to try at home.
Los Angeles bartender Jake Larowe created this decadent Manhattan riff with a playful twist. The cocktail uses bourbon as the base, along with a split of cream sherry and sweet vermouth for some botanical depth and acidity, before finishing the liquid components of the drink with two types of bitters. For the smoked element, Larowe uses a smoking gun to harness the sweet-woodiness of cherrywood chips, letting the rich smoke infuse with the cocktail in a sealed vessel. To serve, the cocktail is poured into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. It’s both simple and effective, a great application for the smoking technique.
This juicy take on the Margarita created by Chicago bartender Carlos Perez uses a flamed rosemary sprig as its source of smoke. He mixes Banhez Mezcal Artesanal with Cointreau, watermelon juice, hibiscus syrup, and lime juice. The pink-hued cocktail is fruity, smoky, and bursting with nuanced notes of citrus, in which mezcal and smoke come together to create a seamless pairing.
This unorthodox Old Fashioned riff made with straight bourbon, Aperol, and rosemary spice bitters gets its smoky flavor from ice made with water that has been smoked with cherrywood chips. An Old Fashioned is a cocktail that should evolve in the glass as it dilutes; the smoked cubes slowly introduce the smoke element over the course of the drinking session: a clever, albeit untraditional, way to integrate this aromatic component. To garnish, the drink calls for a rosemary sprig and dehydrated orange wheel, but a fresh orange twist will also suffice.
The Rum & Smoke reimagines the Negroni formula, creating a drink that’s heavy on the base spirit (aged rum) and fortified wine (Oloroso sherry), with a touch of bitterness in the form of Tempus Fugit’s Gran Classico bitter. The mix is balanced with a barspoon of smoked rosemary syrup, which receives its smoke from a burnt rosemary sprig (which is also used as the garnish). If you enjoy cocktails that skew sweet and nutty, you’ll love this warming elixir.
Best for advanced home bartenders or cocktail professionals, this smoked cocktail uses a fairly uncommon method of incorporating smoke. John Filkins, the beverage director at Officina and Masseria in Washington, D.C., boils Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitters and cardamom bitters to create a smoke. Since both bitters are glycerin-based, they smoke rather than burning in the way those made from alcohol would. Filkins uses a Turkish coffee pot, also known as an ibrik or cezve, with a high heat tolerance that means it nearly instantaneously smokes the bitters when they hit the hot surface. To capture the smoke, invert a snifter over the hot pot until it’s filled, then quickly place a coaster over the mouth of the glass to seal it. The actual cocktail is a spirit-forward mix of bourbon, Barolo chinato, and dry curacao, a blend that falls somewhere in between a Manhattan and Boulevardier. It’s an interesting drink, if purely for the novelty of the technique used.