Bartender’s Choice: “Something Smoky”

In "Bartender's Choice," we challenge some of our favorite bartenders with a drink order, and see what they come up with. This round: Chad Michael George, Kellie Thorn, Nikki Sunseri and Kai Parrott-Wolfe take on “something smoky.”

bartender's choice something smoky illo

With the exception of diffusing smoke directly into a rocks glass, making a drink with notes of char relies on a characteristically smoky base spirit—namely, mezcal or peated Scotch. But ask a bartender about the mechanics of making such a drink and they’ll tell you that this particular balancing act requires extra care. 

“It’s difficult putting smokiness in cocktails, especially if you’re trying to make a refreshing one,” explains Kai Parrott-Wolfe of Brooklyn whiskey dens OTB and Post Office Bar. When working with such a flavorful spirit as Scotch, “the flavor is so big it generally doesn’t play that well with others, or will overpower other ingredients,” he adds.

One strategy is to use a light hand and find other spirits that will play nicely, as Parrott-Wolfe does in The Meadowlark, shaking just a half ounce of heavily peated McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey from Oregon with an ounce and a half of gin, plus equal parts lime juice and simple syrup. The result: the whiskey’s distinctive notes complement the botanicals in the gin, offering a subtle essence of smoke without overwhelming the drink. “When people drink this they often don’t even identify the peat as one of the flavors because it combines so well with the botanicals in Dorothy Parker gin,” Parrott-Wolfe says. “It creates this crazy new flavor.”

Thanks to the rising popularity of both mezcal and Scotch, not to mention the diffusion of modern classic cocktails like the Penicillin, the “something smoky” request has become an increasingly common one. In response to the call, Chad Michael George, formerly of Williams & Graham and now heading up Denver’s forthcoming The Way Back, turns to mezcal and lets the spirit’s comparatively rounded smokiness take center stage. His refreshing highball is a “more laid-back,” lighter option that sees the spirit’s bite softened with agave and blackberry liqueur, then topped with a splash of dry cider for a little lift.

Others, though, don’t shy away from the one-two punch of a drink that’s both smoky and strong. Nikki Sunseri at Las Perlas in Downtown L.A. offers up the Sunday Mass—a mix of mezcal, citrus and fig and rosewater simple syrup, served on the rocks and garnished with chicharrón salt and rose petals. “This drink is dark, austere and has the characteristics of smoke, roses and roasted pork,” which all adds up to an unorthodox response to the call.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Kellie Thorn of Empire State South goes whimsical with her take on “something smoky”: the Bonfire Kiss, a mix of mezcal, oloroso sherry and crème de cacao topped with apple bitters and garnished with a cinnamon stick, intended to resemble a wintertime log on the fireplace. The cocktail is best made with a mezcal that offers some fruitiness, says Thorn, like Del Maguey’s Vida. “It already has great fruit notes that plays well with the liquor and bitters,” she explains, adding that the sherry’s perceivable acidity balances out the drink’s sweetness.

“There is something familiar and nostalgic about these flavors coming together,” she says. “[It] reminds me of being at a fair with your loved one on a cold night, eating caramel apples.”

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