Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

Researching this article on cocktails that use smoke as a flavor ingredient was like pulling a loose thread on an old sweater. It just kept coming. Every drink I found led to two others that I hadn't known about. In the end I mentioned examples of smoked cocktails in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Yountville, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Chicago.

There were so many that I didn't have room in the article to mention them all. Left out were the Amaro at The Aviary in Chicago, in which the upturned glass soaks up the fumes of a smoldering barrel stave; the Smokin' Bone at Fatty 'Cue, which used smoked pineapple juice; and Embers Only, a smoky Old Fashioned variation at Bobo in the East Village.

The trend is not necessarily new. As I mention in the story, Eben Freeman was working with smoke Coke syrup at Tailor five years ago. Smoke Signals, an early example of smoked ice, was created by Evan Zimmerman at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland soon after. And Andrew Bohrer, the original bar manager at Seattle's Mistral Kitchen, helped come up with the Courting Rachel two years ago. But the trend really picked up a head of steam this past fall.

Are these drinks really worth the bother or their ornate preparations? Well, as with any drinks trends—vinegar cocktails, barrel-aged cocktails, fat-washed cocktails, draft cocktails—it depends on who's behind the bar. In the hands of a bartender who knows what he's doing, they can be sublime. In the hands of an amateur, they're often unbalanced and just plain curious. The best specimens I tasted were made by Derek Brown and his people down in D.C.

Here's the New York Times story, accompanied by some splendid photography.
Where There's Smoke, There's a Bartender
ON a recent episode of the satirical IFC show “Portlandia,” a preening mixologist creates an over-the-top cocktail with egg shells, a rotten banana and “charred ice.”
Good joke, but not completely absurd. Charred ice has not been spotted in any mixing tins, but smoked ice cubes are falling into cocktails in Boston, California and, yes, Portland, Ore.
Mixologists have been using mezcals and peaty Scotches to slip a little smoky flavor into their potions for some years. But today many bartenders will settle for nothing less than actual smoke.
At Craftbar in Manhattan, the beverage director, Hayden Felice, is smoking the Campari in the house Negroni. For the Smoked Sicilian Manhattan at the Bristol, in Chicago,bourbon is given a cherry-wood treatment. At Rogue 24, R. J. Cooper’s restaurant in Washington, D.C., the mixologist Derek Brown pumps cassia-bark fumes into a blend of mezcal, maple syrup and maple bitters called Where There’s Mezcal. And the Smoky Margarita at Bottega in Yountville, Calif., has no less than three sources of smoke: smoked tequila, smoked jalapeño simple syrup and oak-smoked salt on the rim.
Sound a bit byzantine? It gets better. At Mr. Brown’sColumbia Room in Washington, a new drink called Ghost Dance gets going when aromatic sweetgrass (also called bison grass) and a star anise pod are set smoldering under an upturned glass. After the vessel has been thoroughly “rinsed” with the vapors, this Sazerac variation is completed with Calvados, Fernet-Branca and simple syrup.
But even that process takes a back seat to the Smoker’s Delight, served at Todd Thrasher’s bar PX in Alexandria, Va. Mr. Thrasher takes three or four different kinds of tobacco, steeps them in hot water for five minutes, strains it, adds sugar and reduces the mixture. He mixes a few drops of this with bourbon, honey syrup and lemon juice. Mr. Thrasher created the cocktail for his business partner, who had just quit smoking.
“I think it adds another nuance of flavor,” Mr. Thrasher said. “Smoke has always been in food. In cocktails, unless you used mezcals and Scotches, you don’t get it. It’s me trying to move beyond really sweet and really dry cocktails.”
There are as many ways to deliver embers to alcohol as there are woods to burn. The most common tool (and the simplest method) is the smoke gun. Stuff wood chips in the device’s chamber, light them, and the smoke snakes through a tube to its desired target.
This is how Amber Johannson, at Mistral Kitchen in Seattle, treats the bourbon for the Courting Rachel, her take on an Old-Fashioned. After filling a decanter with smoke, she chases it with the mixed drink, then pours the result over rocks.
Craftbar has a smoker in the restaurant, which Mr. Felice uses to give near-frozen Campari an hourlong apple-wood singe. For their Mexican Piano cocktail, Tim Zohn and Ethan Terry at AQ in San Francisco take a blowtorch to a bay leaf and immediately pour ice over it to trap the smoke in the glass. They then pour in the cocktail, a mix of tequila, lime juice and huckleberry-tarragon syrup.
For customers, the appeal of these drinks may go beyond flavor to something more subliminal.
“The first thing you think about is camping,” said Mr. Brown, the mixologist. “It has an emotional impact.”
Eben Freeman, the director of bar operations and innovation at the Altamarea Group, is familiar with the notion.
“I’m sure that people will argue it’s some sort of caveman reaction,” he said. “That sense-memory thing is part of its appeal. I think it’s also a matter of the American palate, which has changed and is on such a fast learning curve. You overload that palate, so you need stronger and stronger flavor experiences.”
Mr. Freeman should know. Those smoke signals bartenders are reading can arguably be traced back to Tailor, the bygone SoHo restaurant where Mr. Freeman was the barman. Tailor’s best-selling drink was the Waylon, a simple but bewitching mix of bourbon and smoky Coke. Drafting off the chef Sam Mason’s root beer float, made with smoked vanillaice cream, Mr. Freeman did the same to Coke syrup, smoking it first with cherry wood, then alder, then feeding it through his bar’s soda gun.
“A lot of things that people scoffed at when they happened, they’re doing a lot now,” Mr. Freeman said. “It’s been a delayed effect.”
Like Mr. Freeman, many of the mixologists now playing with fire took their tip from the kitchen, adopting processes and equipment once reserved for the chef.
“We saw them playing with blowtorches and wondered why they should have all the fun?” Mr. Zohn said.
Bartenders are also finding new nonflammable ways to introduce a fireplace aura. Lapsang souchong tea, which Mr. Thrasher said “smells like Laphroaig tea,” is a favorite. He mixes some with single-malt Scotch, lemon juice and honey syrup to make his Sherlock Holmes cocktail.
Greg Seider, owner of the Summit Bar in the East Village and a cocktail consultant, uses a secret ingredient he calls Bonfire (a Lapsang souchong nettle tincture) to season the Restoration, a drink at Le Bernardin made with butter-infused Calvados and caraway agave.
Mr. Terry said there might be one other hidden appeal in all these elixirs. “There’s not a lot of smoke in bars anymore,” he said. “These drinks take you back a little bit. It makes it feel a little more like a bar.”
Something to mull over beside the hearth.

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