Smoke Signals: Smoky Cocktails Are Now Trending

By Elyse Glickman

As the American palate continues to evolve, so too are spirits with more complex and intense flavors. Consider the uptick in popularity of peatier Scotch and the impressive rise of mezcal over the past couple of decades, giving tequilas a run for their money.

smoked cocktail

This evolution also shows that where there’s smoke, there’s ultimately fired-up sales and creativity. To add a smoky flavor, venues are using highly specific bartending techniques as well as smoky garnishes (think smoked salt or a strip of smoked bacon standing in for a swizzle stick) and recipe components that add earthy, woody flavor notes to temper and balance the sweet and sour. “Smoking kits” and blow torches creating that dramatic tableside magic of vapor rising from the drink are also appearing, especially at venues with a brown spirits emphasis.

“I believe the desire to see more alternative flavor profiles than just sweet, strong, and tart is driving the desire [for smoked cocktails],” says Rafe Gabel, co-owner and director of operations at Triangulo Restaurant Group for Duende in Oakland, Calif. “It shows creativity and thoughtfulness. This is what gets drinks photographed and put on social feeds. It is a necessity in Michelin [star-rated] environments.”

According to a 2015 Tales of the Cocktail Foundation article (and other publications aimed at craft cocktail consumers and professionals before and after), the genesis of this trend dates to 2007 when New York bar owner Eben Freeman conjured up the “Waylon,” a bold mix of smoked Coca-Cola and bourbon. Using various strategies and tools, bartenders have been able to make old favorites (Bloody Marys, old fashioneds, and margaritas) new again and open the floodgates for new recipes tailored specifically for modern tastes.

One delicious irony, however, is that some bartenders see smoke as an enduring bar skill rather than a new trend.

“My cocktail menu is history based,” says Lisa Harrington, bartender at Miller’s Toll Dinner Club & Lounge, Bennington, Vt. “We offer a classic plus a few variations on the original. I currently have a Rosemary Smoked Negroni and/or Boulevardier Sour on the menu as well as a smoky, spicy margarita, and they are amongst the best selling of the cocktail offerings under our ‘classic’ heading. We have many people that come in and try one smoked drink then immediately look for others.”

Many members of the USBG (including Brett Sanders, Inga Tantisalidchai, Courtney Fletcher, Dan Marlowe, Aistis Zidanavicius, and Kristian Arnold) happen to be quite fired up about this ever-evolving trend and see smoked cocktails as an extension of America’s ever-expanding palate. “Offering smoked cocktails allows a bar to branch out and create flavors that wouldn’t normally be available,” says Brett Sanders, United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) member and mixologist and bar manager at Olive or Twist in Pittsburg, Pa. “Four years ago, I started to notice it first with burnt peels and flamed essences, and since then it has only skyrocketed. Who doesn’t like seeing others play with fire and smoke?”

Lisa Harun, chief marketing officer of Stündenglass smoked cocktail bar tools, counts the increased sophistication of the American palate, social media, and the opportunity to create custom menu items as reasons why sales for smoked cocktails are heating up. “Because of the dramatic presentation, social media is going to keep the popularity of smoke rising,” she says. “Smoke infusion adds an experiential element to your bar with a captivating bar back or immersive tableside bar cart show…and establishments are able to charge a premium for the privilege.”

A Slow Burn…With Lasting Impact

While it takes a little bit of extra time and work to achieve the desired smoked flavor profiles and presentations, there are a number of ways for bartenders with various levels of experience to make things fun for their guests.

“I offer one different smoked cocktail every season, usually striving to bring in seasonal ingredients and flavors,” says Sanders. “This season, I’ve crafted a play on a Bees Knees using local beeswax and honey from Apoidea Apiary here in Pittsburgh. I infuse it into Resurgent Rye, a Pennsylvania craft distillery, and then mix it with more local honey, some Benedictine, and a touch of lemon. Before the cocktail is served, a snifter is smoked with fresh thyme, highlighting the herbal and floral notes from the honey and beeswax.”

Sanders adds that he’s also created a smoked old fashioned with local Boyd & Blair high-proof, barrel-aged rum, blood orange, and house-made charred walnut bitters served in a glass smoked with cinnamon to really bring out some of the sweeter notes of all the ingredients.

Dan Marlowe, who helms Modena in the nation’s capital, points to its best-selling original cocktail, “Niki Lauda.”

smoked cocktail
Smoked Cherry Bourbon Smash, Elgin Public House

“We can create the same flavors in the back during prep,” Marlowe explains. “While the final product must be backed up by flavor, there must be a show or else why would your customers ever leave the comfort of their kitchen? Thankfully, the techniques and tools to smoke beverages are no longer pricey, secret, or difficult to find.”

Kristan Arnold of Elgin Public House in Burlington, Ill. says that while she has seen smoked cocktails around for a long time, she believes it has been in the last five years that smoked cocktails have traveled beyond more upscale bars and restaurants. At press time, she had three smoked cocktails in her bar, including a smoked manhattan with Michter’s bourbon, a Probationary old fashioned with four-year Templeton Rye, and a new customer-favorite Smoked Cherry Bourbon Smash with Knob Creek Bourbon. “These three cocktails are simple in process and are becoming more frequently ordered,” she says. “Once one goes out, several more will follow.”

At The Barnacle in Orcas Island, Wash., bartender Courtney Fletcher discusses the S’fumato, which gets its distinctive flavor through smoking the glass with different types of wood or incense, which is further enhanced by amaro.

Aistis Zidanavicius, of Miami’s The Deck at Island, agrees that “smoking shows” performed during the cocktail-making process using various smoking equipment leads to Instagram exposure which, in turn, leads to more word-of-mouth.

“If a bar has great cocktails using smoked flavors, people will talk about that and will post many pictures and videos while watching smoking shows,” says Zidanavicius. “All of those things will help the venue to get more attention, guests, and revenue.”

Mighty Clouds of Joy

Bars limited in size or workspace can turn to kitchen aids such as tobacco-infused syrups, smoky teas, terpenes, craft ice cubes (such as Herb & Lou’s individually wrapped cubes with flavor smoked right in), smoked teas, tinctures, herbs, and even pre-smoked cherries and citrus slices to get into the act. Gabel notes an influx of bar tools pushing things forward, including smoking planks, smoking tops, smoking guns, smoking dried citrus, and smoking spices. Others have been able to conjure up a few tricks using traditional bar tools in surprising ways.

Scott Moser, bartender at Denver’s FIRE Restaurant & Lounge, says that he’s always had smoked cocktails on his menus. He has employed a variety of culinary strategies (adding smoked stocks, butters, creams) to not only impart smokiness, but also other harmonious flavors that nicely frame the cocktail.

Nowadays, smoking devices and kits on the market have widened the playing field. “[Getting a smoking kit] shows that the bar is taking another step to appeal to its guests,” says Moser, who also stresses the importance of sharing all of the new tricks and tips with the rest of the bar staff. “When you have a great bar program installed, it’s all about the team that is behind that bar. I’ve been blessed to have inspiring, hardworking, and loyal team members work in my programs. Giving them the tools to make fun and delicious drinks excites them to be creative and interact more with patrons.”

Arnold argues that the utility of a smoking kit will depend on what the bar manager ultimately hopes to achieve, as there’s always a question about whether the smoke will change the flavor of a drink or simply provide a good show. While the goal for Arnold is to add layers of complexity to the drink, she affirms it makes the guest experience interactive.

smoketop smoked cocktail middleton mixology
Photo: Middleton Mixology

“Whatever your intentions are, if you want to change the flavor, be patient and do it right,” she advises. “If you’re just adding flair, have some fun. If you use wood chips, a smoke machine is a one-time purchase, and as a little goes a long way with the wood chips, there aren’t a lot of required costs. With that, you could add a dollar or two onto every smoked cocktail, which will help with the ever rising costs of labor, food, alcohol, and so on.”

James Middleton, who developed the Smoketop, intended for it to be both professional grade and versatile enough to be used easily at a variety of venues. The coaster-sized smoking device is favored by Inga Tantisalidchai and Dan Marlowe, who use it along with torches from brands like Newport Butane.

Based on Middleton’s experience as a bar manager, the Smoketop’s design reconciles the appeal of craft cocktails and crowd-pleasing presentation with efficiency. Furthermore, because of the Smoketop’s small size, high-volume venues can purchase several to make many high-quality smoked drinks in minutes.

“You can light up wood planks, but that requires a substantial amount of space on the bar,”

smoked cocktail
Citrus & Smoke, Next Door in Boston, MA

Middleton explains. “You can have a [cocktail smoking] box, but it may take up at least a square foot on the bar top. There’s the smoking gun, which requires a few different components and is very fragile. Customers have given me feedback that while they love the quality of craft cocktails, they don’t want [their orders] to take ten minutes. And if we have heavy volume on a Friday or Saturday night, there’s also a concern that other devices can get banged around, clogged, and may not last as long as the Smoketop does.”

For other bars where customers come for the show as well as the drink, Stündenglass CMO Harun insists this system transforms a great drink into a full-on sensory experience.

smoked cocktails“With the world being shut for nearly two years, people are craving engagement and entertainment, and with Stündenglass, you get both,” she says. “The Stündenglass experience is multisensory—incorporating sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. The easiest way to infuse a smoky flavor is to place a finished drink inside the Stündenglass cloche and activate the device. Part of the magic is simply lifting the cloche off the drink, post infusion. More advanced techniques include smoking the glass itself before the cocktail is poured, using it to smoke the rim salts or other garnishes, adding smoke to a blender while blending a drink, or smoking the ice cubes.”

In other words, the Stündenglass is ideal for bartenders who want a presentation to be a show in and of itself, which will prompt customers to capture it and share it on social media.

As the device can also smoke food, Harun mentions that bartenders have been doing experiments like making a smoked martini with smoked olives or a side of smoked cheese to further enhance the cocktail.

To create the dramatic presentation for Next Door’s Citrus & Smoke, Josue Castillo uses a device called the Flavour Blaster to create a smoke bubble, which adds aromatics and smoke infusion. Castillo notes that customers love popping the bubble to create the aromatic experience. While the bubble itself is more of a “garnish,” the guest smells the floral notes and citrus flavor opening up as they take the first sip. However, it will not affect the herbaceous and bright flavor of the cocktail.

Even with all of the new innovations and expanded creativity, Harrington notes that the olfactory impact of smoke—no matter how one sets it off—can also evoke feelings of warmth, comfort, and nostalgia. “I have had many people comment about different smokes reminding them of being cozy and warm at home in the winter around the fireplace, or campfires and friendship in the summer,” she says. “Familiar, but used in different, sometimes unexpected ways.”


Want to know more? Learn pro tips from USBG bartenders for adding smoke to cocktails.