MIXOLOGY TALK PODCAST, EPISODE #182

As summer comes to a close but the weather is still warm, we at A Bar Above are longing for the pre-COVID barbecues of yesteryear. So, in lieu of that, we’re talking this month about smoke in cocktails! Hey, get it any way you can, right?

Today, Chris is talking with Ben Potts from the Beaker & Gray Group in Miami: Bar Director, co-owner of two restaurant-bars, and humble expert in smoked cocktails, Ben knows a lot about smoke. While I’ve had a smoked cocktail or two, there is so much to learn about all the various techniques to achieve that smoky effect. So let’s geek out on all the ways you can add smoke to cocktails!

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 1:50– Ben’s background & interest in smoked cocktails
  • 3:05– The basics: spirits to use
  • 5:02– Techniques and equipment 
  • 9:05– What do you burn?
  • 13:08– How to bring together all the elements
  • 19:40– Ben’s best & worst
  • 25:51– Pantry ingredients to smoke (Vegetarians need not apply)
  • 27:49– Ben’s number 1 tip for smoked cocktails
  • 28:28– Ben’s new projects

MEET BEN!

Ben Potts is a Miami native who enjoys all things beverage. In addition to his enthusiasm for liquid delights, Ben enjoys exercising, purchasing too many power tools, and pursuing wellness in all aspects of life. Ben is currently the Bar Director for Beaker & Gray Group where he enjoys telling people what to do at both Beaker & Gray and The Sylvester. His favorite cocktail is the one he’s drinking.

LET’S GET BASIC: THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE FOR WHICH SPIRITS TO SMOKE

As a self-proclaimed “early adopter” of the smoked cocktail trend, Ben has a wealth of information about using smoke to enhance a drink’s flavor and wow factor. I mean, when a guest sees fire used in their cocktail, it is pretty darn appealing. But where do we even start?

In general, begin with any base spirit that already incorporates wood, smoke, or spice:

“If the spirit of the cocktail has had some experience with char or toast or smoke in its creation, then good chance it’s going to play well with it later in life.” –Ben Potts

Spirits that naturally work with smoked flavor:

  • Whiskeys/whiskies
  • Aged brandies
  • Dark rums
  • Some aged tequilas (This is a “maybe” from Ben, so start with the more obvious choices and play around from there.)

Alcohol to skip when smoking your cocktails:

  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • White rums
  • Blanco tequila

Other tips for starting out with smoked cocktails:

Using smoke works best with stirred cocktails:

  • Think Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and variances on those.
  • Start here and branch out once you’re comfortable with the process and flavor profiles.

Citrus and smoke aren’t BFFs.

  • A really bright, citrusy cocktail is going to fight against the smoked flavor you’re trying to add.
  • A possible exception to this is Bergamot liqueur, which couples an aged flavor profile with a citrus element. Because it already incorporates spices, you might be able to add a smoky component.

 

These are just some starting points for your endeavor into smoking cocktails; once you master the basics, the techniques you use can really broaden your cocktail horizons.

EQUIPMENT, TECHNIQUES, AND INGREDIENTS FOR SMOKED COCKTAILS

Maybe at this point, you’re asking yourself, “So… Do I just light stuff on fire?” Not exactly, but there’s certainly some fire involved. Ben walks us through his equipment, tips, techniques, and ingredients for smoking cocktails. Be warned: This is where we get a little nerdy!

SMOKED COCKTAILS: BEN’S GUIDE TO EQUIPMENT & TECHNIQUES

Equipment: Smoking Gun

Ben’s go-to utensil is the PolyScience smoking gun. You place the smoking gun’s hose into the glass or vessel you’re using and add heat to create smoke.

Tips:

  • DO NOT USE A BLOW TORCH! No matter how tempting it may be, a blow torch will melt the plastic of your smoking gun.
  • Ben prefers to use a hemp wick as his heating element rather than a lighter. (A traditional lighter can add a butane flavor to your cocktail. No, thanks!)
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different vessels and techniques once you’ve figured out how to use your smoking gun. Instead of smoking liquor directly inside a glass, try lighting wood chips and then using that to smoke the glass.
  • Little things can pack a punch: A larger vessel has a lighter impact on your cocktail’s overall flavor because the smoke is spread out; however, a smaller vessel delivers a more concentrated flavor because the smoke is condensed around the element you are trying to smoke.

 

Equipment: The Flavour Blaster

Although he hasn’t used one yet, Ben mentions the Flavour Blaster, and now I’m kind of obsessed. Just go watch the video on their website, and you probably will be, too! It creates a bubble filled with air, which you could theoretically fill with smoke to be added to your cocktail.

 

Equipment/Technique: Smoking Box

Using a smoking box is another way to create an intense smoked flavor. Bartender extraordinaire, Charles Joly, offers a smoking box through his Crafthouse by Fortessa barware line. While very visually appealing, using this method can be a little tricky, as Ben explains:

“If [the smoke] overpowers the cocktail, it’s not going to work out. And it can’t be temperamental; it can’t be one of those cocktails where ‘OK, just a little too much smoke and it’s out the window.’”

There are lots of variables to consider when using a smoking box, all of which affect the flavor of your cocktail:

  • How much smoke goes in (and how much is too much?)
  • How thick the smoke is
  • How quickly the smoke dissipates once you open the door
  • How long you let the smoke sit in the box with the element you’re smoking

It’s a really cool (and gorgeous) method, but it’s easy to overdo it with a smoking box, so be mindful when using one. 

 

Technique: Smoking the glass

One of Ben’s preferred methods is smoking the glass itself. It’s very visually appealing for guests and fairly simple to do:

  • Using a board or metal tray, torch an element like cloves to create smoke. (Here’s where your blow torch can come in handy.)
  • As soon as it gets smoky, put your glass upside over your smoking ingredient to trap the smoke. The smoke will fill the glass, adding a rich flavor.
  • Quickly pour the cocktail into your glass, letting the smoke pour out of it for a beautiful effect.
  • Tip: When using this technique, your glass must be cold so the smoke sticks to it.

I found a video that demonstrates how to use this technique (go to minute 4:05 for instructions).

 

Technique: Fat washing

When Ben wants a cool, smoky flavor, he often ends up skipping the actual smoke altogether doing a fat wash using leftover smoked meats from Beaker & Gray’s kitchen. 

“You can work with them, the fattiness in them holds onto the smoke really well, that translates to the spirit really well, depending on what you’re doing.” –Ben Potts

And no fire or special tools are required! Of course, vegetarians aren’t going to order bacon-washed drinks, so you could also get inventive with smoking non-meat options yourself and fat-washing the drink in that.

LET’S BURN THAT: INGREDIENTS FOR CREATING SMOKE IN COCKTAILS

As far as what to actually burn for a smoky flavor, you have so many options. Considering that Ben has probably tried them all, here are a few of his favorite elements (and some suggestions on what doesn’t work):

 

Wood chips are a great starting point: fragrant woods like oak and cedar work well for adding another sensory aspect. 

Spices and herbs also can add a fragrant aspect, but you have to choose carefully!

  • You can get an acrid odor from a lot of the things you smoke, so play around with a few things and see how they smell when they’re on fire.
  • For example, smoked rosemary and thyme are awesome, but smoked mint… not so much. 

Dried fruits like coconut and apple or banana chips are fun to experiment with.

  • You have to be careful to toast them, not char them!
  • You want something more substantial so it doesn’t burn up.

Ben is such a good sport about telling us about his not-so-great attempt at smoking peanuts. Take this as a lesson: smoking nuts is not the same as roasting them. 

BUT HOW DO YOU MAKE SMOKED COCKTAILS TASTE GOOD?

Balance, Layers and Some Do’s and Don’ts for Smoke:

You don’t want to serve a smoked cocktail that tastes like licking a barbecue, so how exactly do you balance the spices, spirits, and other elements into a cohesive drink? In the end, you want a beautiful flavor of smoke in the background, not the sensation of someone blowing smoke in your face. First decide what part of a cocktail do you want to highlight: Nose? Body? Both?

Consider how delicate or robust you want the end flavor of your cocktail, and then look at what you’ll be using to create the smoky flavor. You can get creative and layer smoked elements, such as creating a cinnamon smoked syrup with a touch of cedar or oak on top for a more intense smoked outcome. Ben goes into a lot of detail about how to achieve this:

“Once I figure out what I’m going to be working with, like, let’s say I want to make a smoked apple cinnamon syrup, I will figure out how I wanna best get that cinnamon smoke in there. Do I want to take the syrup and bring the smoke in? Do I wanna put the syrup in the smoker? Do I just want to have a small amount of smoke to interact with it? Do I want to add something else like wood to it? Do I want to flavor the wood, like with some sort of essential oil? […] And then again, it does come back to how much smoke I want and what is the scent of the smoke that I want?” 

But one thing Ben suggests is to not change the base spirit itself by using smoke, especially if you want to highlight a already-wonderful liquor:

“I’m not big on using smoke to change the base spirit. […] I don’t generally mess with the spirit. I will work with the other components of the cocktail, whether it be glass, ice, modifiers, syrups, whatever.” –Ben Potts

Definitely jump to minute 19:40 to hear Ben explain his favorite smoked concoction, a former drink on the Beaker & Gray menu called the Black Orchid; mixing smoked vanilla bean with Kronan Swedish punsch, a really cool feature of this drink is that Ben took the gutted vanilla beans from their housemade vanilla syrup and torched them with a smoking gun for the Black Orchid’s smokey element. Delicious and sustainable!

And then there is Ben’s worst attempt… As I mentioned above, smoking peanuts doesn’t work so well. But trial and error is what it takes in all things cocktail, right? Especially when you’re learning what works (and what doesn’t) to create smoke in cocktails, you need to be comfortable with trying and failing. But don’t forget Ben’s top tip for smoking cocktails: 

“Probably don’t start doing it when you’re drunk. Practice sober. […] Bartending can be pretty dangerous. There’s a lot of sharp things and fire, and it can get pretty tricky. So, you know, being responsible, that’s probably my number one tip.”

Wise words, Ben. Wise words. 

 

Thank you Ben!

And like so many of us during this crazy time, Ben has been getting creative with his endeavors lately.

While his restaurants are currently closed, he’s working on a new bar and restaurant consulting company called Unfiltered Consulting that will also specialize in experiential brand marketing for beverage producers. But his really fun adventure right now is his YouTube page, Drinking by Yourself. (Hey, he outed himself as the secret host, not me!)  It’s hilarious, so check it out if you haven’t already. 

Alright, now what will you be smoking for your cocktails this month?

Will it be the glass itself or something more exotic? We would love for you to share all your successes, failures, dos, don’ts, and recipes with us in our Facebook group. And since a stirred cocktail works best for smoking, you should probably hop over to our shop and grab a bar spoon and mixing glass for your creations. And if you’re in the Miami area, make sure to visit Beaker & Gray when they reopen and try that new Sherry Coke cocktail for me!

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Melanie Tornroth

A former English teacher, Melanie optimistically embraces the struggle that is work-from-home parenthood as the in-house writer for A Bar Above. When not responding to “Mom” and writing articles for ABA, she also runs Goodnickels Photography, loves to cuddle her cats, and is perfecting the art of keeping her pandemic “fermentation babies” alive.

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