Smoking in crowded bars may mostly (and happily) be a relic of the past, but the cocktail glass itself hasn’t lost all elements of smoke — often imparted by ingredient alone. Many fall in one of two smokiness camps: You like — insert Scotch or mezcal here — or you don’t.
But the characteristics of smoke in drinks don’t have to hit one over the head to be effective, rather they can be subtle and nuanced. Stocking your bar with a few foundational bottles of smoky-leaning spirits offers access to drinks that range from refreshing and bright to earthy, herbal and vegetal.
Start with mezcal, a spirit distilled from the agave plant. As with wine, a pour of small-scale mezcal provides direct connection to its terroir. “It almost tastes like you’re outside; you can taste the soil,” said Yola Jimenez, founder of Yola Mezcal. “That’s my favorite part: It really tastes like the land.”
The layered flavors, including smokiness, in every bottle of mezcal vary by region, variety and producer, and their complexity is a result of techniques used for hundreds of years. The intrinsic smoke flavor forms during the process of roasting the agave hearts, or piñas, before they are crushed and fermented. The sweet, fiery smell that permeates the air during cooking also infuses into the final distillate, capturing the plant’s herbaceous essence.
Each variety of agave used to make mezcal also has its own distinct flavor. For Yola Mezcal, Jimenez follows one of her grandfather’s recipes, a blend of organic espadín (a cultivated variety of agave that takes roughly seven years to mature) and a smaller percentage of madrecuixe, a wild, distinctively tall and cylindrical agave — “because we felt it had that right balance of sweetness, smokiness and complexity,” she said.
Before you mix a drink, pour some mezcal on its own. “For me, the smokiness disappears quite quickly after the first sip,” Jimenez said.
Keep drinking as-is or mix your next few ounces into a cocktail. Combine the spirit with sweet hibiscus syrup and allspice dram for a Mezcal Fresca, a drink that’s tart, smoky and spiced.
Or soften Scotch’s smoky edges with white vermouth and amaro in a Bitterscotch. Choose a lighter, sweeter amaro or, should your smoke tolerance be higher, double down with Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro, a smoky, alpine amaro made in northern Italy. And, if you’re on a tight timeline, combine equal parts Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro and sweet vermouth over ice, and start drinking.
Whichever bottle you choose, smoke-leaning cocktails hit that sweet spot between smoking jacket and cigar, and suit a wide variety of palates — no lingering haze necessary.
Yield: 1 drink
For the Hibiscus Syrup:
- 1 cup dried hibiscus blossom, also called flor de jamaica
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon smoked flaky salt
For the Cocktail:
- 1 1/2 ounces mezcal
- 1/2 ounce hibiscus syrup
- 1/2 ounce allspice dram
- 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
- 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- Soda water, for finishing
1. Make the hibiscus syrup: In a saucepan, combine the hibiscus blossoms and 1 cup water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the sugar and salt, stir to dissolve, then turn off heat and allow to cool completely. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to extract all the syrup. (You should have about 1 1/4 cups syrup.) Keep it in the refrigerator, tightly covered in an airtight container, for up to 3 weeks.
2. Make the cocktail: In an ice-filled shaker, combine the mezcal, hibiscus syrup, allspice dram, grapefruit juice and lime juice. Cover and shake until well chilled. Fill a rocks glass with ice. Strain the cocktail into the glass and top with soda water.
Yield: 1 drink
- 1 1/2 ounces Scotch
- 1 ounce blanc vermouth
- 3/4 ounce amaro
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- Lemon peel, for serving
In a shaker, combine the scotch, blanc vermouth, amaro and lemon juice. Add ice, cover and shake vigorously until the drink is well chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Holding a lemon peel by its long edges, skin facing down into the glass, pinch the peel to release the citrus oils. Add it to the glass and serve.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.