Smoke and spirits go hand in hand well beyond cigars and whiskey. From developing the beloved raw essence of particular spirits, to smoke's increasingly widespread use as an ingredient in cocktails, smoke and booze consistently jive as perfect partners.
Scotch, Smoke, and Peat
Scotch and peat are inextricably linked in the minds of many, and that relationship is one originally born of necessity. Scotland has always depended upon peat, likely stretching as far back as there were settled inhabitants living in Scotland, using the soil-like matter as a vital resource for fire and heat.
As such, peat was the obvious, and only, candidate to serve the same function in the developing Scotch industry, being utilized as a fuel source to fire up the stills themselves. This though doesn't truly impart any smoky or peaty flavor into the whisky itself and has since been replaced with more efficient heating mechanisms.
The defining way in which peat influences Scotch is therefore its usage to dry malted barley. The heat and smoke from a controlled fire dry barley, cutting off the germination process before the grain is sent to the mill to be prepped for mashing and fermentation. The more peat used in that fire, as well as lengthier durations of exposure and other variables, the more peaty essence is delivered to the barley and the resulting Scotch. Also, peat from different locales and of different compositions will also, of course, impart unique flavors. Yes, peat terroir is a thing.
While the majority of distilleries no longer handle their own malting—leaving it to separate, larger facilities—a number still do, and they're able to control the procedure in different ways. For instance, Laphroaig breaks up the process into a two-step operation, first flavoring the barley with peat smoke, and then drying it separately.
... do not equate "smoky" and "peaty," as not all smoke delivers inherent peatiness.
The amount of peat in a particular Scotch can be measured in terms of phenol parts per million, or PPM. Phenols are the actual chemical compounds which the peaty smoke delivers to the barley itself. Similarly to how craft beer has a sect of hop devotees pushing the boundaries to always create higher hop levels, measured by IBUs, some whisky fans love nothing more than maximum peat and ever-higher PPMs, such as Bruichladdich's Octomore lineup.
Meanwhile, not all Scotch incorporates peat. Distillers sometimes use other fuels to dry their barley, resulting in a spirit with a different flavor profile. Therefore, do not equate "smoky" and "peaty," as not all smoke delivers inherent peatiness. Other smoky notes or descriptors in the phenolic range to consider include campfire, medicinal, iodine, seaweed, rubber, tar and sulfur.
Also, "peaty" and "salty" are not necessarily linked. Peat is most prominent in Scotch from Islay, and the small island is also known for its salty, sea-soaked whiskies, so it's key to distinguish between those elements.
Further, flavors of smoke and peat aren't only found in Scotch. Japanese whisky isn't generally known for its smokiness—although there are certainly smoky Japanese drams—but there are also cases where a smoky whisky may be produced specifically as one piece of an eventual blend.
The most Americanized smoke infusion though is in the form of mesquite smoke, delivering flavor notes more customarily found in barbecue.
For instance, with Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a smoky malt whisky is one of many individual components the blend incorporates. Chief blender Shinji Fukuyo describes it as "the hidden player" of the blend, using the sky spirit in very small amounts.
American Whiskey Gets Smoked
American whiskey is no stranger to smoke, and stateside it's being put to use in a range of ways, from traditional to uniquely made in the USA.
At Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia, owner Rick Wasmund traveled to Islay and scored an apprenticeship slash internship at Bowmore. There, he learned the producer's methodology for floor malting and smoking, and brought it back home with him. He uses a similar setup and system, but with 60 percent applewood and 40 percent cherry wood for his smoke.
Westland Distillery in Seattle produces a range of American single malts. One such edition is their Westland Peated Malt, which incorporates part peated malted barley from the region.
The best known release from the always inventive Corsair Distillery may be their Triple Smoke. They use malted barley smoked in three different fashions, using peat, beechwood and cherry wood.
The most Americanized smoke infusion though is in the form of mesquite smoke, delivering flavor notes more customarily found in barbecue. Whiskey Del Bac from Hamilton Distillers in Tucson, Arizona, is a notable purveyor of such mesquite smoked whiskey, including an aged and unaged version. Ranger Creek also puts mesquite smoke to work with its limited edition Rimfire release.
Whiskey isn't the only spirit category in which smoke plays a prominent role, and mezcal may be even more innately linked in the minds of drinkers with a smoky profile. Again, it comes down to production process.
... as all Scotch isn't peated, nor is all mezcal smoky ...
Mezcal is typically made by cooking the piña, or heart, of the agave plant in underground, stone-lined, conical pits. At the base of these pits are wood fires—and as with whiskey, different fuel sources and types of smoke offer different flavors. The piñas are piled atop the fire, and the pit is covered, allowing a slow-cook process to commence for several days.
Of course, as all Scotch isn't peated, nor is all mezcal smoky, although in this case it's a less common breed. As a unique example, take Mezcal Viejo Indecente Espadin, a new U.S. release. Here, the brand uses an entirely different production process for their mezcal, steam cooking the agave in a clay oven, as opposed to in a wood-fired pit. Without the smoke-forward notes which typically dominant mezcal, more of the agave sweetness and earthiness comes through, while the production process itself is more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
Smoke as a Cocktail Ingredient
Beyond influencing the base spirit of a dram, smoke is now widely used in cocktails, whether in the form of actual smoke itself, or as smoked ingredients, such as smoked bitters or liquid smoke. In the case of smoked bitters, there's a variety of options, such as Hella Bitters' Smoked Chili Bitters; Bitters, Old Men's Smoke Gets in Your Bitters; and Cocktail Punk's Smoked Orange Bitters.
And there's no shortage across the country of creative cocktails infused with smoke, either. Take Washington, D.C.'s Dram & Grain, where one of the basement bar's top drinks since its launch has been the Ode to Omaha, developed by Trevor Frye.
Here, Frye uses PolyScience's Smoking Gun, a handheld hosed smoke machine which connects to the narrow top of a semi-spherical glass. Frye burns tea leaves on one end and the smoke travels to the chilled glass, with the cold temperature drawing the smoke in and keeping it hovering above the liquid below. The glass is corked and then it's all poured into a regular cocktail glass over a large square ice cube.
The result isn't a smoky overload, as is sometimes the case. Instead, there's a background essence of smoke with a carefully chosen flavor profile from the specific tea leaves used. It meshes with the cocktail's other ingredients, including Thomas Tew Rum, a house-made strawberry and cinnamon syrup, and Jerry Thomas bitters. The drink is part pure imbibing pleasure, part theater.
And then there's Los Angeles restaurant Gracias Madre's Up in Smoke, which looks like, well, a smoking bong. Barman Jason Eisner also uses PolyScience's Smoking Gun to deliver roasted hempseed smoke to a water bong filled with mezcal and hopped cucumber soda syrup.
Elsewhere, a semi-popularized technique involves burning cedar planks or other thin slabs of wood with a high-powered culinary butane torches before placing a drinking vessel over the burning embers. The glass itself becomes smoked, similarly as to how glasses may be "washed" for certain cocktails, adding a separate note to the actual ingredients mixed for the drink.
You can still light up that cigar to get your smoke fix, but clearly, you don't have to.
Lead cocktail photo: Hakkasan's Smoky Negroni. Image courtesy of Hakkasan.