Robb Report Vices

Playing with Fire

  • Tony Sachs

Cocktails and fire: Put the two together and an enjoyable time is almost guaranteed. Then again, if you’re not careful, an emergency visit to a nearby burn unit is also almost guaranteed. Nevertheless, a flaming cocktail is intriguing and can be delicious . . . when done properly.

It’s impossible to know who intrepidly lit the first cocktail on fire and lived to drink the results, but the first recorded flaming cocktail is attributed to Jerry Thomas, a 19th-century bartender who is considered the George Washington of the mixed-drink set. In his Bartenders Guide, published in 1862, Thomas references the Blue Blazer, a whisky toddy made with scotch, sugar, lemon peel, and boiling water. Unlike traditional toddies, this drink was lit on fire and, using two metal mugs, poured back and forth at a great distance. Good drink; great show. Other flaming libations from the pre-Prohibition era may have been more elaborate, such as the American Flambee—a mixture of bourbon, gomme syrup, and nutmeg that was accented by the torched skin of a grapefruit—but the Blue Blazer remains the best-remembered vintage libation.

Setting a drink aflame is a surefire way to impress your friends, but there’s a loftier motivation for introducing fire to spirits. When done correctly, an open flame can positively affect a cocktail—it reduces the alcohol content and caramelizes the sugars, which results in a richer, deeper, and more harmonious cocktail. There’s also more than one way to light up a drink. You could, no doubt, set the whole shebang on fire. It’s the most dramatic way to go. But it’s also the best way to singe your eyebrows, lips, and other areas of your body.

For home bartenders with pyromaniac tendencies, a smarter (and safer) alternative is to light up a drink’s garnish. Take, for example, the Flame of Love. A bartender at Chasen’s in Hollywood developed the cocktail for Dean Martin, who was growing tired of his usual order. The drink features a sherry-rinsed glass, vodka, and a flaming orange peel. The bartender would squeeze an orange wedge over a lit match, which created a mini fireball and sprayed a fine mist over the surface of the drink. The heated oils added a citrusy tang to the proceedings, and by rubbing the burnt peel over the rim of the glass, the bartender added even more depth of flavor.

Creative marriages of liquor and flame didn’t end in the 1950s, however. Today, innovative bartenders are putting their own spin on the practice. At the Dirty Laundry in Los Angeles, for example, bartenders have added fire to the Sazerac, lighting the absinthe during the glass-rinsing step of the cocktail’s construction. It takes an already complex, classic cocktail and adds a smoky undertone.

At Bar Centro, the cocktail hub of the Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills, mixologists serve up a drink which takes the fire-and-booze combination into the 21st century. The blended scotch-based drink, called Smoke on the Water (the Pliska), includes muddled blackberries, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, Cointreau, and a spritz of atomized Laphroaig single malt. The kicker is a flaming lemon peel, which fills the glass with smoke and harmonizes all of the flavors.

Esteban Ordoñez first made his mark on Manhattan’s cocktail scene when he opened Apotheke, but he has since turned heads at Burning Waters Cantina, where he appropriately experiments with fire. His Cidra al Ron (a spiked hot apple cider) is a fire show in two acts. First, measures of applejack, Caliche rum, and Wray and Nephew overproof rum are combined with boiling water in a sauce pan and set ablaze. The spices are then grated on top of the fiery brew, which creates a shower of sparks. The nonalcoholic ingredients are added last, which puts out the blaze and makes the drink fit for consumption.

At American Cut in Tribeca, the Plank Smoked Old Fashioned employs two of the less common tools in a barkeep’s arsenal—a crème brûlée torch and a plank of charred maple. To make the drink, the bartender first torches the plank and uses an old-fashioned glass to catch the smoke. From there, the Woodford Reserve bourbon is added and an old-fashioned is constructed as normal, only the end result is a stunningly sweet and smoky libation.

Theoretically, all of these drinks can be made at home, but drinking and playing with fire at the same time is probably a job best left to the professionals.

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