I grew up in a whiskey sour-drinking German family who also loved smoked sausage, cottage ham (smoked and cured pork shoulder), and smoky-flavored hot dogs (Kahn’s). When I moved from Cincinnati to Kansas City, I realized that smoke was my “soul food” flavor and enjoyed it anew in Kansas City barbecue.
Now smoke has met the whiskey sour and other classic libations. They have gone off into the sunset together. It’s a taste match made in heaven. Smoke adds an aroma and visual now-it’s-here-now-it’s-not mystery. It’s a flavor that can deepen and ground traditional barbecued brisket and ribs as well as a craft cocktail.
Aromatizing cocktails with smoke flavor can be done in several ways: with smoke-infused liquors, by blasting bourbon with a smoking gun (sort of a pistol that shoots aromatic smoke into liquids), using smoked salts or smoky bitters, using already-smoked ingredients like chipotle or bacon or bitters, or grilling and smoking your own ingredients (herbs, persimmon, butternut squash, lemons, rhubarb) to create a signature drink.
Here are a few “spoked” cocktail worth trying out:
Image credit: Mike Vrobel
Grill the cut sides of lemon halves outdoors or indoors in a hot grill pan. The grill marks give a smoky flavor to the fruit. Grilling also caramelizes the juices into something really wonderful. Mike Vrobel of DadCooksDinner.com uses a cocktail shaker to blend his grilled lemon whiskey sour with the juice of a grilled lemon half plus 2 ounces of whiskey or small-batch bourbon and 1 ounce of simple syrup. You can also get a smoky flavor by mixing your favorite bourbon with Bittermilk No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour Cocktail Bitters; the honey is smoked over barrel staves.
Image credit: Nick Evans
Nick Evans of Macheesmo.com grills all of the fruit for his grilled fruit sangria, including red grapes. Simply grill slices of orange and pineapple. Blister whole clusters of grapes (or use a perforated grill pan to contain them). The caramelized fruit sugars and smoky grill marks add lots more flavor to the sangria. They look beautiful as well. Evans chops the fruit into smaller pieces and cuts each grape in half; the fruit goes into a large pitcher. Evans then pours in 1.5 liters of a chilled, fruity red wine, ½ cup Calvados, ½ cup brandy, and maybe simple syrup to taste. A good stir, and the sangria is ready to serve.
Image credit: Ashley Rose Conway
You can also smoke and smolder ingredients without a grill, right before serving a drink, as Ashley Rose Conway does at CraftandCocktails.com to make her smoked thyme rye sour. She mixes 1 ounce of fresh persimmon puree with ½ ounce simple syrup, ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice, 2 ounces of Wild Turkey Rye, and a dash of bitters. She shakes and then strains the drink into a glass. She adds a branch of fresh thyme to the glass (with most of the sprig above the liquid(, then uses a long grill match to light and smolder the fresh thyme for a few seconds before blowing it out. The smoldering thyme aromatizes the drink and the tiny singed thyme leaves that fall into the drink give it a slightly smoky flavor.
The classic bloody mary is a fabulous blank canvas for smoky flavors. Use a smoke or bacon-infused vodka or naturally smoky Mezcal as the alcohol. Smoke tomatoes on your grill for 1 hour and juice them (plus double smoke your bacon) as Mary Cressler does to create her smoked bloody mary with smoked bacon at Vindulge.com. For each 4 drinks, she smokes 4 to 5 Roma tomatoes, removes the skins, then purees them in a blender. Then, to the blender, she adds 3 cups more tomato juice, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire, 2 teaspoons horseradish, a little hot sauce, the juice of a lemon, and salt and pepper. For each glass, she figures 1 to 2 ounces of vodka, then tops it up with the smoky juice mixture. She even smokes her own ice cubes by placing a pan of water on the smoker, smoking the water for an hour, then using the smoked water to make ice cubes.
There are also less labor-intensive ways to achieve a smoky flavor. Simply add a little liquid smoke to regular tomato juice. Stir in a teaspoon of pureed chipotle in adobo sauce for a smoky hit with heat. Use a smoked salt on the rim and a crispy, cooked slice of thick-cut smoky bacon—straight or curled—as a swizzle stick. Use one or a few smoky ingredients, but not all, as too much smoke flavor can be bitter.
Image credit: Ryan Maybee
Even a traditional gin and tonic can benefit from a smoky flavor—with a little smoked honey that you can simply put in a pan on your smoker and let sit for an hour, covered, to achieve a smoky flavor. Cocktail genius Ryan Maybee, who presides over the speakeasy-like underground bar Manifesto in Kansas City, mixes up 2 ounces Midwestern Dry Gin, 2 ounces of Boylan Heritage Tonic, and about 1 tablespoon smoked honey for a sweet depth. For a hit of sweet/tart and for color, he purees and stirs 1 ounce of locally grown pineapple tomatillos (a tart, golden version of the ground cherry). Wouldn’t they be great grilled as well?