Boston’s Grill 23 & Bar oozes with 1980s Masters of the Universe masculinity. The menu features colossal seafood towers, 100-day dry-aged ribeyes and $26-per-ounce A5 striploin. On the beverage side, the wealthy Back Bay crowd often opts for wine from Master Sommelier Brahm Callahan’s world-class list. The cocktails are similarly top-tier, but for the past several years, one drink has been ordered more than any other. Death & Taxes is essentially a Whiskey Sour made with a Fernet-rinsed glass, lemon juice and peach syrup, but the main attraction is the bourbon, which has been infused with smoke drawn from a fire of burning Montecristo cigars.
“I didn’t want the smoke to be overpowering. I just wanted it to be on the finish,” says Callahan, who recognizes the inherent absurdity of smoked cocktails, which have come to represent a stereotypical hypermasculinity in the drinks world—whiskey cocktails on steroids.
The practice of smoking cocktails goes back to 2007, when Eben Freeman, then working at Manhattan’s Tailor, infused smoked cherry and alder wood into a house-made Coca-Cola syrup to create an updated Jack and Coke. The idea was to quickly inject flavor into a familiar, often two-dimensional drink, and it didn’t take long for smoked cocktails to find favor with a bro-y crowd through their inherent showiness: a rubber smoking gun tube pumping white billows around a rocks glass covered by a cloche. The attendant price tag has made smoked cocktails as necessary to the finance bro starter pack as a Rolex Submariner. Today, however, smoked drinks bear little resemblance to the shock-and-awe showstoppers of the past.
“People overused it,” explains Lynnette Marrero, bar director at Brooklyn’s Llama Inn and the newly opened Llama-San in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean the trend has stalled. Increasingly, inventive bartenders are finding more nuanced ways to add smoke to their drinks, from unique woods to offbeat kindling, and base spirits that go beyond the expected bourbon. In this second wave of smoked cocktails, the technique is no longer just about a visual flourish.
“I do believe we are living in an age where smoked cocktails in all forms are becoming more prevalent and more cerebral,” says Jason Sorge, a beverage consultant and bartender at Montage Beverly Hills. There, he serves Just What the Doctor Ordered, a Sherlock Holmes–inspired cocktail made with gin, Cocchi Americano and sherry, along with smoked rosemary. “I love the way the scents and flavors of the smoked rosemary interact with the London dry gin and nuttiness of the sherry to produce such an interesting combination.”
At Llama-San, a Nikkei restaurant in Greenwich Village, the entire drinks menu is built around creative foils. Flaming Creatures, an Old-Fashioned riff, is made with a cacao shell–infused Japanese whisky and unrefined Peruvian sugar, then smoked with palo santo.
“My head bartender and menu collaborator, Natasha Bermudez, really wanted to add the savory aroma of the palo santo to complement the chocolate,” says Marrero, explaining that the smoke adds a woody brightness and minty aroma.
Hay has likewise begun to gain traction as a nouveau way to smoke. Long used in preserving meats and cheeses, “cocktail chef” Matthew Biancaniello incorporated the grass into a smoked hay drink (he doesn’t name his cocktails) at Mon-Li, his ambitious 12-course liquid omakase concept in Malibu. His drink combines Nankai shochu infused with smoked alfalfa hay, currant tomatoes, yellow watermelon and lemon verbena.
“I’ve never been into smoking cocktails the traditional way,” says Biancaniello, noting that he prefers to smoke the individual components of his cocktails, like infusing wood from a laurel forest into ice cubes used in a Madeira drink, smoking acorn squash for a garnish on an Old-Fashioned, or dispensing smoked plum-infused vodka as an aromatic spray over the top of a Caesar salad–inspired cocktail.
While today’s smoked cocktails are less about basic showmanship and more about thoughtful nuance, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be photogenic. Sorge’s Just What the Doctor Ordered, for example, is served in a dramatic glass pipe. And at Billy Sunday in Chicago, Stephanie Andrews’ Papa Don’t Peach, made with fig wood–smoked peach gomme syrup, is served in a bespoke Russian nesting doll. When it arrives, the doll’s head is pulled off, the smoke billows, and the camera phones come out.
But, for a growing number of bartenders, such performances are only acceptable if their purpose is not simply to dazzle. Biancaniello, for his part, firmly refuses to hoist the cloche in front of his customers. “How much true flavor is being added,” he asks, “and how much is just for the effect?”