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What's Up With Smoky Cocktails?

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What do camping, bacon, and cocktails have in common? Other than being awesome, they are all often infused with smoke.

Though cocktails may seem like the odd man out, using smoke to add complexity to drinks dates back almost to the roots of the craft cocktail movement. Like many other experiments, it’s been taken to the logical extreme: Bartenders have smoked just about every ingredient behind the bar.

According to master mixologist Jim Meehan, it’s probably an outgrowth of the barbecue trend in the food world. Since it can be a new flavor for bartenders, it can also be the next logical step for bartenders who have experimented with more traditional taste combinations.

Despite its modern appeal, it’s likely that humans had to evolve to enjoy the flavor of smoke, though we’re not actually able to taste it; humans lack specific receptors in our taste buds for smokiness. Luckily for us, a food or drink’s flavor comes from three sources: scent, taste, and physical reactions (like texture or the heat of a chili pepper). For smoke, almost all of its flavor comes from its distinctive smell.

Since smell triggers memories more than any other sense, our associations between smoke and summer barbecues or nights spent camping make it an interesting ingredient to play with.

CHARRED COCKTAILS

There are two ways to add smoke to a drink: either by infusing it with smoke, or by simply using a smoky ingredient. These days, there are plenty of ways to infuse a cocktail with smoke. Tutorials abound for smoking ice on your grill or infusing a whole drink with a Smoking Gun. Dedicated products like Liquid Smoke also make it easy to instantaneously add some char with just a few drops.

The craft cocktail movement has also spawned a host of smoky ingredients. From smoked salmon vodka to hickory liqueur, the world of spirits is awash with new smoke. But two liquors, Scotch whisky and mezcal, hold the distinction as being smoky originals.

Scotch is one of the most polarizing categories on the market. Though it can be mild and malty, it’s best known for being earthy and smoky. But this distinctive flavor doesn’t come from the water or the distillation process. Instead, the smoke is imbued beforehand.

After the barley used to make the Scotch is sourced, it’s soaked to start the germination process. To stop it from sprouting, the grain is heated, completing the process known as malting. Since peat, which is commonly available in Scotland, is an excellent fuel, it’s often used to stoke the fire. The more peat used, the smokier the resulting whisky.

Mezcal, which is often described as a spicy, smoky tequila, is produced rather differently. This Mexican staple is made by cooking agave hearts in an underground oven. By lining these ovens with volcanic rocks and heating the hearts over an open flame, this multi-day process smokes and caramelizes the agave while also cooking it through.

Unlike infusing partial or whole cocktails, using smoky ingredients comes with a unique set of challenges. First, making a cocktail normally requires dilution. Diluting any spirit lowers the alcohol content. It also releases new aromatic compounds while masking others, which changes the flavor of the booze. As a result, a mild, nuanced Scotch or mezcal can become a one-note smoke bomb when it’s mixed into a cocktail. Also, Scotch and some mezcals have a reputation of being liquors you drink solo. Some purists may shy away from these cocktails, but that means more for us.

Despite the risks, bartenders through the ages have taken pains to perfect drinks with smoky ingredients. Classics like the suave Rob Roy and the curious Blood & Sand are now joined by modern takes on smoky cocktails. Be sure to ask your bartender for guidance if you're in the mood for some smokiness.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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