MIXOLOGY TALK PODCAST EPISODE #183

We’re still going strong with smoke month, and today we have something a little different for you: Chris is talking about using wood as a flavor with barbecue pitmaster and internet sensation, Malcom Reed. If you want to know all about using wood to introduce smoke and flavor into your cocktails, you’ve come to the right place!

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 3:50– Types of wood to use
  • 7:57– How to tie in all the flavors
  • 10:33– Lesser known woods & woods to avoid
  • 15:10– Malcolm’s favorite combinations of flavors/woods
  • 19:12– Wood pellets

MEET MALCOM!

For over a decade now, Malcom Reed has been competing in barbecue competitions, and it didn’t take long for this hobby to develop into a full-blown addiction. After being inspired by the camaraderie and brotherhood of the sport, Malcom developed HowToBBQRight.com, a website devoted to sharing BBQ techniques and promoting the competition BBQ lifestyle. Through his cooking team, The Killer Hogs, and his barbecue business, Malcom is a constant student of BBQ, and his goal is to share his knowledge and passion with everyone.

WOODS YOU CAN USE FOR INTRODUCING SMOKE INTO COCKTAILS:

MESQUITE, CHERRY, AND (ALMOST) EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN  

The type of wood you use for barbecue is usually regional, so the same will be true for smoking cocktails. A lot of states actually won’t let you ship certain types of wood, so you might not be able to work with your ideal variety. But let’s look at your potential options:

Mesquite

A popular wood here in California and other parts of the west coast, mesquite is an earthy, sometimes pungent hardwood that burns hot and fast– and creates a lot of smoke. That’s a great quality when you’re trying to add that smoked flavor into a drink. But you have to be careful not to overdo it with this one!

Post Oak 

Associated with Texas BBQ, post oak delivers such a heavy smoke and strong wood flavor that people often just season their meat with additional salt and pepper, according to Malcom. You can play around with this for smoking cocktails, but like with mesquite, be careful not to over-smoke your element. Since it offers a strong flavor by itself, you might find it slightly difficult to pair with cocktail ingredients.

There are other oak varieties like red oak that you can play around with as well; this tends to be a little less overpowering and might lend itself to a smoked cocktail better than some of your other options. (If you’re a meat-eater in California, Malcom recommends using red oak for tri-tip.)

Hickory

Hickory is a traditional BBQ wood with a strong, deep flavor. Because of this, it’s great for large cuts of meat that can absorb the strong flavor. However, it might not be your best bet when creating a smoked cocktail because such a small element might soak up too much flavor. 

Pecan wood

Pecan is a more subtle hardwood that imparts a nutty flavor into whatever you are smoking. This could be a great choice for cocktails that already have a woody or nutty profile.

Fruit woods

You have several excellent choices of fruit woods for cocktails. Each type will bring a hint of that fruit to your drink, but remember that a lot of these will only be available based on region. Here are some of Malcom’s favorites:

  • Cherry: Providing a deep sweet-and-tart flavor, this wood also creates a red hue.
  • Peach: Common in Georgia, peach wood brings a light sweetness that would complement something like a bourbon and smoked peach combo (I’m just brainstorming here!). 
  • Apple: Another mild and sweet option, apple wood would blend well with many cocktails. Perhaps something smoked and spiced for the fall?

MORE UNIQUE WOODS TO TRY FOR ADDING SMOKE TO COCKTAILS

Malcom mentioned a few rare but noteworthy wood choices as well:

Maple wood

Malcom’s personal favorite, maple wood brings that sweet, unique maple flavor. I would love someone to make me a smoked maple old fashioned using maple wood! Pretty please?

Wine barrels 

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea that Malcom offers: Use wine barrels so that the deep wine flavor soaks into your smoked cocktail. 

Pimento 

It might be futile to even mention because it’s difficult to source, but Malcom raves about pimento wood for jerk chicken. So if you can get your hands on pimento wood, I would love to see a Jamaican-inspired smoked cocktail using it.

FAVORITE WOOD COMBINATIONS FOR SMOKING

Who says you have to stick with one kind of wood? Whether you’re barbecuing or making smoked cocktails, you have the opportunity to combine a medley of woods to create a unique flavor profile. Malcom’s favorite combination is hickory, pecan, and cherry. Think of the drink you could make with those flavors!

“I personally like to use a combination of some hardwoods. Like I’ll take my oak and hickory and mix it with some pecan or maybe some fruit wood like apple or cherry or peach, something to give it some unique characteristics.” –Malcom Reed

Whichever wood(s) you choose, make sure to follow Malcom’s tips:

  • Check the moisture level of your wood with a moisture meter. (You want your moisture around 17-18%.)
  • Remember, you want to produce smoke and garner the aroma of the wood without overpowering the elements of your cocktail (or food).

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: WOODS TO AVOID FOR SMOKING

So, other than not using wood with a lot of moisture, what else should you avoid when working with smoke? Well, as Malcom explains, you don’t want to use anything like a pine tree:

“People, they don’t want to burn green wood a lot. But high moisture wood, if you think of fir trees […] or Aspen or pine trees, something that’s got super high moisture content, those trees don’t do well for smoking, and they actually produce some other flavors in ‘em that are almost, you know, not edible basically when you burn them. […] You can use some cedar planks, but they’re not burning those planks, they’re just laying the meat on it inside the cook chamber to get some flavor from it. So that’s OK, but when you’re talking about trying to burn it, it doesn’t do well at all. So I’ll stay away from anything that’s pretty much an evergreen tree.”

Also, as a rule of thumb, know where your wood comes from. Don’t use pallets or treated wood; anything you burn is creating smoke that goes into your cocktail, and you definitely don’t want to serve up chemicals or trace metals to your guests!

HOW TO WORK WOOD INTO YOUR SMOKED COCKTAIL FLAVOR PROFILE

Now that we know which woods to use (and not use) to create smoke in cocktails, how do you blend the flavor of the wood with the cocktail itself? Do they have to coordinate perfectly? 

Malcom actually suggests pairing and layering flavors like fruit and spice rather than matching them. This definitely makes for more complex flavors in food and drink, so it makes sense. 

“What I like to do is mix the wood and the spices. So you get the combinations, you get the fruitiness or the sweetness from the apple wood, but you also incorporate a little bit of hickory wood or a little bit of pecan to balance it out with a little bit heavier smoke. […] You can play with your smoke and your seasoning ingredients and come up with these good combinations that are not necessarily in the same family.” –Malcom Reed

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to play around with various woods to see what you like. Combine flavors, see what works for the cocktail you’re making, and get creative.

MALCOM’S TIPS & TRICKS FOR CREATING SMOKE WITH DIFFERENT WOOD PRODUCTS

Of course, you can grab some logs and just start a raging fire to produce smoke. But even though Malcom Reed is a pitmaster, we are actually talking about making cocktails here. Making a fire behind a bar isn’t that exactly practical, so let’s talk options.

WOOD CHIPS AND SMOKE BOMBS: DOS AND DON’TS 

We’ve all seen wood chips at our local grocery store; they seem easy to grab, so maybe that would be a good choice? Well, according to Malcom, not so much. Turns out, wood chips burn super quickly, so you won’t actually get much smoke out of them. 

But you can make smoke bombs with them:

  1. Make a pouch from tin foil.
  2. Put in the wood chips and poke a hole in the top of your pouch. (Tip: You don’t want too much air to get in or out of the pouch.)
  3. Light it: You can throw this directly on a grill or barbecue if you’re cooking, but you could also light it other ways if working in a bar or at home to smoke a cocktail element. 
  4. The smoke bomb will smoke slowly to give a little flavor from the wood chips. Malcolm also mentions that you can soak your wood chips in a little water to slow down the burning process. 

I couldn’t find any videos from Malcom himself on this process, but here is one that demonstrates this method (Note that Mr. Karl recommends not soaking your wood chips).

Of course, I have to add: Please be extremely careful with fire! If you’re using fire to smoke your cocktails, be sure to do it either outside in a very fire-safe place (like inside a barbeque as Malcom suggested, or on a large concrete pad or in a fire pit.) Or if you’re attempting smoking inside, do it somewhere far away from flammable objects and with lots of ventilation. And whatever your approach, keep a fire extinguisher nearby just in case.

WOOD PELLETS: BIG FLAVORS & MORE EXPERIMENTATION WITH SMOKE

An alternative to chips is wood pellets, and it seems like we have a winner here! According to Malcom, pellets might just be the perfect solution to creating smoke for cocktails.

Here are some of the benefits when considering this option:

  • Wood pellets are small and can safely be used indoors. 
  • There are many different flavors that you can use alone or combine– and this might solve the regionality issue!
  • Because of their size, it’s easier to source different varieties without sourcing whole logs or chunks.
  • You can control the environment without a roaring fire to get smoke out of the pellets. (Because of this, they could potentially work with a smoking gun!)
  • They don’t leave a lot of ash behind, so they won’t leave a big mess behind the bar.

Wood pellets seem like a great starting point because you could experiment with them really easily and then even start using hardwood once you’ve decided what you like. But if you want to create smoke behind the bar itself… These will get you a lot of smoked flavor for your cocktails without the hassle of wood logs. 

Malcom’s suggested brands: Traeger, BBQr’s Delight, B&B Charcoal, Lumber Jack

HOW TO APPLY WOOD TO MAKING SMOKED COCKTAILS

I never thought I’d know so much about wood and smoking! This is a lot of information. Let’s review some of Malcom’s biggest tips for applying smoke to cocktails:

  • Remember: No evergreen woods (or anything in that vein)!
  • If you are going to work with actual logs, trim them down beforehand to make the wood more manageable, especially depending on where you’re doing your smoking.
  • If your wood is too dry, you can hydrate it with liquid: some interesting suggestions from Chris and Malcom are dark Jamaican rum, really strong tea, and wine. Alcohol will apply a whole other element of smokiness in the flavor.
  • Use fruit woods that would pair well with brandy and other liquors for an added fruity-yet-woody flavor. 

 

So now it’s your turn to share how you use smoke in cocktails:

Have you ever utilized wood itself for the smoky flavor? Have you tried wood pellets? We want to hear all about it, so leave us a comment below or come join us in our Facebook community group and share your smoked cocktail process with us! And of course, visit our store to grab some mixing tools for your new inventions.

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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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