“Fire wasn’t something I was looking for,” says Dave Arnold. It’s an ironic statement from someone who has made a name for himself, in part, by setting drinks aflame with custom-designed red-hot pokers.
“I was just looking to make high-heat flavors,” he says, noting that immersing a high-temperature object into a cocktail—or otherwise applying flame directly to a drink—yields a deep, caramelized flavor profile unlike anything gently heated on a stovetop.
When Arnold started experimenting with his “red-hot poker” drinks that would eventually become one of his signatures at New York’s bygone Booker & Dax (and now at Existing Conditions in Greenwich Village), the intent was to create “variants on old-style drinks, the classics,” he says. That is, a base of brandy, applejack or cider, sugar, maybe some citrus and spice, heated to a high temperature with a poker plunged directly into the mixture much like colonial innkeepers once did. The results were drinks like his Wassail, a twist on one of the oldest templates of hot drinks, with a distinctly caramelized flavor. “We were doing very traditional ingredients you might actually hit with a red-hot poker, an actual loggerhead or flipdog, in the 18th and 19th century,” says Arnold.
He started experimenting with the technique long before opening bars, during his tenure as head of the International Culinary Center (formerly Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute), from 2005 to 2011. (He returned to ICC in 2016 as associate dean.) “I tried to make a kiln, an electric thing you’d keep the poker in—those were kind of crazy,” he recalls. “Once I built one that was so hot, we stuck a chicken heart into it and it immediately caught on fire, Indiana Jones style—it was like, boom! Instantly on fire.”
Later, Arnold built a hand-held heater, similar to the model he currently uses, which burned so hot that it set drinks on fire, to dramatic effect. But what began as an unintended consequence quickly became a sought-after result.
“Everybody liked igniting the drinks, so that became part of the thing,” he recalls. “It went from being a modern way of making an old drink to a very specific style.” His Hot Ti, for example, is a Ti Punch variation specifically designed to be burnt to bring out a richer version of the Caribbean staple.
At Existing Conditions, Arnold and partner Don Lee have developed a specific ratio that they employ with all of their hot drinks, for a reliably incendiary effect without compromising the flavor of the finished product. The template consists of two ounces of spirit—some of which gets burned off—a half-ounce (or more) of sweetener and a mere quarter-ounce of acid, if any. Lee puts this formula into practice with his Iichiko “Oyuwari,” which enlivens oyuwari (shochu and hot water) with earthy green tea and grapefruit juice.
Compared to iced cocktails, which usually balance sweet and tart elements, hot drinks require a different calibration: much more sweet, and much less tart. “The sugars get burnt down, so it ends up tasting less sweet than you would think,” Arnold notes. Meanwhile, “the acidity has to be very low, because acidity really rides over the top of a hot drink very quickly. Think about how much lemon you squeeze into hot tea versus how much you use in a cold drink—it doesn’t take very much.”
Water is part of the equation too, offering dilution (similar to the role ice plays) while dousing the flame. For the Flaming Jäger, in which German bitter Jägermeister is set aflame to caramelize the sugars, Existing Conditions typically sets one ounce in the tempered pint glass, where the drink is mixed and heated, plus another ounce of water in the glass in which the drink will be served. “Flame it, and then pour it in,” says Arnold.
To recreate the hot-poker flavor at home, Arnold recommends using sugar instead of simple syrup to channel the burnt flavors that the poker would typically impart. “At home you can mix some of these flavors by putting just sugar—no water—into a pan, letting it caramelize pretty hard, then turn in the liquor, and that will catch on fire.” Once that happens, remove it from the stove, stir it, and eventually add water to douse the flames before pouring the mixture into a tempered glass.
In general, he says, “The real trick is just lowering the alcohol enough so your head doesn’t blow off; pulling the acid back; and, if you’re using extremely high heat, just realize you’re going to lose some of the sweetness from the burn.”
Luckily, Arnold notes, “Many things taste good burnt.”