Smoke in cocktails: Complicated, but worth it

Columnist, Spirits May 20

When I wed my husband, I married knowingly into a circle joined not by blood but by smoke. Among his closest friends he counts several obsessive barbecue people who can spend hours debating partisan issues far from those strangling Congress: sauce or no sauce, what kind of wood, what temperature, which seasonings, which sides. Once spring rolls around, I know I will spend some nights alone as, down on our patio, he stays up wooing the smoker. I’ll wake to the sound of coals and embers shifting, and by morning, our yard will be hazy with wood smoke. Neighbors have occasionally dropped by to make sure the house isn’t on fire.

I have my own healthy helping of pyromania, and I love stealing grill space to prep cocktail ingredients: The flavors that come out when fruits hit fire — grilled peaches, charred lemons, tomatoes rich with smoke — make for wonderful drinks.

There seems to be a belief out there that true barbecue requires its creator to suffer. Low-and-slow smoking demands the patience of Job, and because many barbecue people are also great raconteurs, I suspect a connection: no suffering, no story. My beloved was recently opining to a smoking friend and mentor that those who take shortcuts in pursuit of barbecue simply don’t get it: You must put in the hours to understand the smoker, figuring out how to please it. You think you know the smoker, but then it does something you don’t expect and betrays you, forcing you to wonder whether you know it at all.

(“The smoker, you see, she is like a woman” — that is how I imagine The Most Interesting Man in the World might express the general notion behind much of this smoke fetishism. But in truth, I suspect I am far less complex, and produce more predictable outcomes, than my husband’s temperamental Brinkmann.)

I’m a sucker for some of the theater that goes into cocktails, and fire and smoke provide a showman bartender with great opportunities: At Bar Charley a while back, I watched a group of 20-somethings hypnotized by the Stepdad, for which a cedar plank is seared with a torch and its smoke captured in the glass the cocktail will be served in. Fire is transfixing, its offspring the same: Smoke swirls, circles, sinks, creating visual interest as it deepens and complicates flavors. Watching Trevor Frye at Dram and Grain inside Jack Rose Dining Saloon put together the Ode to Omaha, a cocktail that entails piping hickory smoke into a beaker of rum and blackberry syrup, I didn’t just think, “I want that drink.” I thought, “I want to set something on fire.”

Over years of putting cocktail ingredients on the grill, I’ve experienced the unexpected slings and arrows a smoker can hurl at its devotees. Why, for Pete’s sake, did the smoked lemons for a bourbon punch taste like lemony beef, when apples prepared the same way emerged perfect? Why did that corn, intended for a boozy, smoky gazpacho shot, turn out so bitter?

I put some of those questions to drinks consultant J.P. Caceres and chef Victor Albisu of Del Campo. Albisu seems never to have met an ingredient he wouldn’t grill and with Caceres has put together a roster of smoke- or grill-smooched drinks, including (hello, beautiful!) a negroni made in a glass smoked with canela, a type of cinnamon. (A tip for those who want to do the smoked-glass thing at home: Use a frosted glass fresh from the freezer; Albisu says it retains smoke better.)

It was the Limonada Sucia at Del Campo that got my attention. Much as I like the flavor of smoke in some cocktails, the last thing I want to accompany grilled foods is a drink that tastes like ashes. The limonada delivers: Caceres smokes fresh lemon juice and simple syrup over apple wood for a drink that’s bright and citrusy, and the smoke and the lavender bitters take what might have been boring boozy lemonade into more interesting territory. “You want that little bitterness, some dissonance in flavor and texture,” Caceres says.

I love playing with fire, but if I’m feeling lazy or pressed for time, I think of what Lawrence Olivier purportedly advised co-star and method actor Dustin Hoffman regarding Hoffman’s exhausting preparation for his role in “Marathon Man”: Why don’t you try acting, dear boy? It’s so much easier.

For those looking for smoke who don’t want the grime of the grill: Try mezcal or Islay Scotch. They’re so much easier. The processes that give us mezcal (agave hearts roasted over hot rocks) and the peaty whiskies provide us with bottles full of powerful smoke.

At Black Jack, where bar manager E. Jay Apaga says they’re far too busy to light stuff on fire and wait for it to burn, a mere quarter-ounce of Laphroaig whisky — “that’s the crazy big guy” — layers a deep smoke note onto bright, bittersweet Aperol, dry vermouth and American whiskey in his Grilling Season cocktail.

As a rule, Apaga says, the Scotches will bring a more recognizable grilling smoke “as opposed to a Vida mezcal smoke, which is lighter, a little bit cleaner, more citrus-based.” (I used a mezcal base and a dash of Scotch in the Maguey and Mango.)

Consider Caceres and those bartenders who are setting things on fire or piping in smoke from cedar or apple wood the boozy inheritors of the “true barbecue” mantle. But the happy truth for cocktailians is that while we can choose to step into the smoke ring, joining the long-suffering ranks of the true grillers, we can also opt for ease, kicking back on the patio to enjoy the sunlight and the company, a richly smoky cocktail in hand made with ingredients that have never touched the grill.

Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.

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