Smoke isn’t just for barbecue. All over the country, bars are employing smoke to add depth, complexity, and extra flavor to cocktails. But you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy this smoky trend. With some basic equipment and a few tips, you can begin smoking cocktails at home.
To get started, we enlisted a couple of pros. First up: Gregory Westcott, Bar Manager at Hinoki & The Bird, the celebrated Los Angeles restaurant. And then there’s Eva Kovacikova, Head Bartender at Zuma, a modern Japanese restaurant inside the Cosmopolitan. Both spots are taking a culinary approach to cocktails, and using smoke to give their drinks an extra dose of aromatics and flavor.
Below, our bartenders weigh in on the merits of smoking cocktails, and offer up some handy DIY advice for trying it yourself.
Why Smoke a Cocktail?
“Smoking a cocktail provides an opportunity to add another layer of complexity to the drink,” says Westcott. “I try to tell stories with the cocktails I make. The smoke in a cocktail can be used to trigger an experience like memories of a cookout or a campfire.”
Beyond the additional flavors and aromas that smoke imparts into a drink, Kovacikova is also looking to create visual effects for her patrons. After all, we drink with our eyes first.
How to Make Smoked Cocktails
There are several ways to add smoke to your drinks, some more elaborate than others. Kovacikova says that your first option is definitely a smoke gun. This handy tool safely burns wood chips, and infuses those smoky notes right into drinks via a flexible hose. If you don’t have a smoke gun, no worries—you can use a brûlée torch, or even just a lighter, to smoke wood chips and herbs. Do this on a surface that won’t burn, and overturn your glass over the smoke to envelop it with flavor before pouring in your cocktail.
She notes that another easy option is to smoke your garnish. Set your garnish aflame—herbs and pine work nicely—and blow it out before serving.
Westcott adds: “I’ve used a smoke gun, have torched herbs, and even set a huge piece of wood on fire and doused it with a punch in an enclosed container. My goal is to find the most convenient and organic way. With the Looking Glass [pictured above], I wanted to smoke the cocktail in front of the drinker, so I used a dehydrated apple as a lid to contain the smoke.”
Cocktail Smoking Equipment
The equipment you’ll need depends on the cocktail you’re making. Westcott mentions that a smoke gun is a great tool, but it takes more time, which can be an issue if you’re tasked with making drinks in a hurry. “The idea is to get creative, so use the tools that you have. Wood (or herbs), fire, and a glass is all you need.”
Kovacikova adds that, for home use, vapor machines, smoke guns, and dry ice all do the trick. Dry ice doesn’t add flavor to a drink, but it’s quite a sight. And given its ability to smoke and bubble for extended periods of time, the effect lasts. Just… be careful. That stuff burns if not handled properly.
Cocktail Smoking Ingredients
When making drinks, you can smoke almost anything that burns, but certain ingredients will provide the best flavors and aromas. Westcott has employed hickory, white oak, apple wood, hinoki wood, rosemary, sage, and more, and notes that hard herbs work much better than soft (think rosemary instead of basil).
“Don’t limit your options. Smoke whatever you think can help you make your best cocktail,” he says. But don’t just smoke something for the sake of smoking it—then you’re getting into gimmick territory. “Make sure it’s adding to the flavor of the cocktail. If you want to make a peach drink, grill the peaches. Grilled peaches are amazing with bourbon and smoke.”
Kovacikova likes using wood chips mixed with wet hookah tobacco. The latter comes in different flavors like cherry and pineapple, which adds additional aromas to the wood.
Matching Spirits With Smoke
If done right, you can add smoke to almost any style of cocktail. But both Westcott and Kovacikova like using spirits that already have an element of smoke—for example: peaty scotch, mezcal, and American whiskeys like bourbon and rye.
Says Westcott: “Thinking outside of the box is how great cocktails are discovered. The best part of the process is getting friends together and experimenting with different methods.”