Smoke Me Out

By LUKE O'NEIL  |  October 19, 2012

There comes a time in every drinking career when the nuances of a well-made cocktail — the subtle botanical notes, for instance — just don't cut it anymore. You need a more intense experience. For me lately, that's come from the smokier spirits: peaty scotches and super-smoky mezcals, which, as luck would have it, are seasonally appropriate for fall. Love the smell of burning leaves or a campfire? Try putting it in a glass.

I've been asking bartenders to cook up the smokiest recipes imaginable. The results ranged from the burnt-grapefruit-off-the-grill flavors of a creation by Eastern Standard's Bob McCoy, made with Lagavulin, Vida mezcal, grapefruit, agave nectar, cinnamon syrup, and Angostura and grapefruit bitters, to the intensely bitter smoke of a mezcal, rye, Zucca, and Gran Classico eye-opener from Craigie on Main's Jared Sadoian, to the slightly more approachable mix of Laphroaig, maraschino, celery bitters, lime zest, and absinthe from Shōjō's Markus Yiao.

Depending on your taste, each may sound like the best thing you'll ever sip or an awful glass of pain. "I have usually found that people's apprehension to smoky cocktails stems from a negative experience they may have had in which the smokiness of the drink dominates the flavor profile and drowns out everything else," says Chris Himmel, owner and cocktail guru at Post 390. "Smoky flavors should serve as a complementary characteristic that helps to add another layer of flavor to a drink and bring out a smoother, more buttery finish."

That's one philosophy, especially if you want to, you know, actually sell some of the damn things. While there's plenty of smoke in his Fig n' Pig cocktail — made with bacon-infused, house-smoked Bulleit bourbon, Punt e Mes, fig puree, and orange bitters and served with a bacon-praline rim — it's approachable enough for a drinker looking for something subtler than the cocktail equivalent of hotboxing. The fat-washed bourbon is smoked for 20 minutes, picking up residual flavors from the kitchen's brisket and ribs — and plenty of butterscotch from the sugar of the bourbon caramelizing.

Post 390's Tobacco Road offers a slightly more literal interpretation of a smoky cocktail, combining Rittenhouse rye, sugar, lemon, house-made tobacco bitters, and a tobacco-leaf garnish. It amounts to a pleasantly astringent mix of eucalyptus and menthol, with a light nose of tobacco.

While I certainly liked both of these, it was serious smoke I was after. Will Tomlinson at Park devised a recipe with Fidencio mezcal, Combier Mûre, lime, Benedictine, muddled basil, and Bittermens Hellfire bitters that was buoyant with smoke, with the super-hot finish from the bitters offset by the cooling fruit and herb notes. Dave Cagle at Lone Star Taco Bar turned to Fidencio as well, rounding it out with Peychaud's bitters, house-made mole bitters, agave nectar, and lime oil in a glass rinsed with Green Chartreuse. The Fidencio Classico is right in the middle of the smoke spectrum, he explained; anything stronger would overpower the nuances of the bitters and the Chartreuse's herbal notes.

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