Do you remember the flamed orange twist? The showy garnish dazzled bargoers with dramatic pops of fire as orange oil was spritzed through a lit match over the surface of a drink. The technique became a familiar flourish at craft cocktail bars throughout the aughts, a sign of the seriousness of the drinks within, but has since all but disappeared.
To uncover the fate of the flamed orange twist, we first have to find its origin, which takes us back half a century to a New York Italian restaurant and a chili joint–turned–Hollywood hot spot.
Esteemed bar world personality Dale DeGroff has long been a proponent of the flamed orange twist. But the first time he encountered it, it wasn’t being applied to a cocktail. The year was 1970 and DeGroff found himself at Mamma Leone’s, the sprawling Italian eatery in the Theater District of Manhattan. He noticed the old Italian waiters igniting oil from orange peels over espresso right before dropping the check—a way of putting on a little show while enhancing the flavor of the espresso. Soon after this first encounter, DeGroff moved to Los Angeles, where he saw the technique again, this time in a bar. “It was Pepe [Ruiz] who turned me on to actually using it for drinks,” he recalls.
Ruiz tended bar at Chasen’s in West Hollywood from 1960 until its closing in 1995. Once a humble chili shack, the postwar years saw it become a favorite hangout of movie stars and entertainers like Carol Burnett, Bob Hope and, germane to the history of the garnish in question, the Rat Pack. According to Ruiz, sometime around 1970 Dean Martin asked why there wasn’t a special cocktail named for him at the restaurant. Ruiz set to work and created the Flame of Love Martini. A riff on a dry vodka Martini, Ruiz’s recipe calls for four orange twists to be flamed over a glass, which is then rinsed with fino sherry and filled with vodka that’s been shaken until very cold. It’s finished with a fifth flamed orange twist.
Since those first encounters, the flamed twist has woven itself into the fabric of DeGroff’s bartending aesthetic not only as a form of flair, but as a way to enhance aromatics. When he was opening New York’s Rainbow Room in 1987, he pitched his boss, restaurateur Joe Baum, the idea of using the flamed orange (or lemon) twist on a number of the drinks. Baum wouldn’t stop to talk to DeGroff about it, so he demonstrated the technique as they walked down the hall together. Baum was sold. “I like it,” he said. “Let’s do it with all the drinks that have twists.”
And so it went at the Rainbow Room. Drinks original to the bar, like the Ritz Cocktail (Cognac, lemon, Cointreau, maraschino, Champagne), got the flamed twist treatment. So, too, did new drinks from the greater zeitgeist, like Toby Cecchini’s Cosmopolitan, which DeGroff put on the menu in 1996. Indeed, DeGroff and this particular technique are so intertwined that the cover of his 2002 book The Craft of the Cocktail (and its 2020 reboot) depicts the bartender’s hands poised to execute it. (The British version features the cover DeGroff originally wanted, capturing the moment the oil ignites over the drink.)
Without DeGroff’s notable influence at the time of the cocktail revival, the flamed twist may never have survived into the aughts. Generationally, he acted as a link between the Italian waiters and Los Angeles bartenders practicing the technique in the late 20th century and the crop of early craft cocktail bartenders who carried it forward. Both DeGroff’s program at the Rainbow Room and his seminal book served as models for this new generation; as a result, several modern classics call for the technique.
In San Francisco in 2004, Jon Santer developed the Revolver, a coffee-laced Manhattan riff, and credits its flamed orange twist to the photo gracing the cover of DeGroff’s book. Over at New York’s Death & Co., Phil Ward used the technique to great effect on his now-famous Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. The flamed twist even made its way across the Atlantic, where Trailer Happiness’ Dry Daiquiri—with Campari, a “dash of pash” and, yes, a flamed orange twist—made an enduring mark on the London scene.
Yet, what was once a ubiquitous sight at top bars across the country and beyond has faded into relative obscurity. So what happened to the fiery garnish? Ned King, of Gigantic in Easthampton, Massachusetts, suggests that the flamed orange twist is collateral damage in the transition to the new age of light and bright bar design. “As we’ve moved away from the dimly lit speakeasy as the dominant style of craft bar, the impact of the flamed orange twist has lost some of its sexiness,” he says.
More significantly, perhaps, the technique feels incongruous to the dominant aesthetic of today’s burgeoning hypermodern strain of cocktail culture, which often eschews fresh citrus altogether as well as the performative bartending style to which the flamed twist belongs. Frequent Punch contributor Tyler Zielinski asserts that these high-concept bars approach the garnish in a drastically different manner from those of 15 and 20 years ago. “[There’s] either no garnish, a technique-driven garnish such as something dispensed from an iSi whipper, or a garnish that’s a byproduct of the labor-intensive ingredient-development process,” he says. In this environment, a flamed twist feels too old-timey, too primitive for such a futuristic aesthetic.
Though the flamed twist can occasionally still be seen in the wild, it’s clear that it’s following in the footsteps of the neo-speakeasy itself. Its disappearance might seem insignificant, but for DeGroff, the technique is about more than just aesthetics. “It sold drinks and it got people talking to one another, you know?” he says. “Those are the jobs of a bartender.”