Some anthropologists argue that just one dominant feature separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom: we use fire and heat to cook our food. Like salt, smoking has long been a means of preserving food, and over time, we've learned that it also tastes pretty awesome as well. Those flavors are why we're still willing to use the grill and light fires when we have access to electric heating elements: the taste just can't be matched.
Many drinks and spirits come with smoky qualities – lots of teas, coffee, beer, and whiskeys. But you can also smoke entire cocktails or mixed drinks to add a whole other level of flavor and complexity. As my friend Mike remarked after trying one of my smoked Old Fashioneds, “I don't know if I can ever drink a regular one again.”
The smokedown. So, here's the deal: to smoke a cocktail you don't start with smoky spirits or ingredients, but you actually mix the whole cocktail or one of its components with actual smoke. To make it happen, you just need some means of generating smoke; that is, something to light on fire. Fortunately, since the time is so short, you don't have to worry about whether you're hot smoking (which flavors and cooks the food, like barbecue) or cold smoking (which just adds flavor, such as bacon or smoked cheeses). Perhaps with extended exposure to heat, you could destroy some flavor properties of the drink, but here, it's for such a short period of time, nearly anything will work. Don't worry about the temperature, just the smoke.
Some ideas for generating smoke:
- Place a very small pile of wood chips or hardwood sawdust/shavings in a foil pan or packet and light. When they start to smoke, hold a mason jar over the pile, and capture the smoke, then put on the lid immediately.
- Use loose leaf black tea and a small sauce or cast iron pan
- Use a stove top smoking pan
- Use your gas or charcoal grill: add some wood chips to the heat, and capture the smoke in a sealed, heatproof container (tongs will help.)
- Use a cold-smoking gun:
Yes, this is specialized tool, but it's amazing: The PolyScience Smoking Gun. I received one as a gift, and I've fallen in love with it. I use it all the time, and it's a great way to turn a simple weeknight meal constructed from what I can find in the fridge into something really special. It's basically an electric fan that blows the smoke created from a very small amount of wood shavings through a tube into whatever container you're using. I use it to smoke leafy greens, for cheeses, and on meats and proteins cooked indoors. If something happened to this one, I'd certainly miss it, and replace it immediately. At $100, it's not inexpensive, but for the ease and control, it's money very well spent. If you want, you could try to rig something up yourself. There are lots of “DIY cold smoke generators” projects out there on YouTube and Instructables, so give it a search. If you're interested in food crafts, you'll love having one around.
The process. Once you've figured out how to generate smoke, you need to mix it with your cocktail or ingredients.
As an example, I'm smoking our classic Old Fashioned recipe, which you can find here. Since I'm making the effort, I like to mix and smoke two drinks at once: one for me, and one for a friend. (My wife loves these, too.) So, I begin by combining all liquid ingredients together – here, bourbon, bitters, and 2:1 simple syrup.
Next, pour the mix into some sort of airtight container with a lid. I'm using a flip top glass bottle, but a wide mouth mason jar or a glass food container with a tight seal would work well. These especially make sense if you're capturing smoke from a small pile of chips or your grill. Just collect the smoke and lid it, then immediately (and quickly) add the liquids and re-seal.
If you're using a cold smoking system, light a very small amount of wood chips or sawdust. You're only smoking 4 oz of liquid here, so there's no need to waste fuel. You can buy wood chips at any place that sells grilling equipment or charcoal, like the home improvement center or even the grocery store. Whenever I can, I actually like to save my own from woodworking projects. The lathe turns out perfectly coarse sawdust that I can easily capture, and I know that the only thing that goes into there is 100% hardwood. (You wouldn't want to do this with softwood construction lumber like pine or fir, and certainly not wood that has been treated).
Whatever your method, you want to seal the liquids and the smoke inside the container. Then, just give it a few swirls to allow the smoke to flavor your drink:
There's no need to shake hard or for any extended period of time. Just mix it around in there for 10-15 seconds, and let the smoke work its magic.
When you're done, just pour the drink into some iced glasses, and garnish as usual, and stir to chill the drink. If you've only smoked one component of your drink or are serving it “up,” you can build it with the other ingredients in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker, and prepare as usual.