It’s early afternoon, and smoke is billowing inside Brick & Bourbon in Maple Grove.
A delicate glass dome on a stand is filling with smoke from the embers of smoldering oak, pumped in through a tube connected to a smoke gun. When the lid is removed, thick curlicues escape in slow motion over the bar, revealing on the stand a Maple Old Fashioned that was shrouded in white a moment ago. From the bourbon to the mini-Belgian waffle for garnish, the cocktail is now freshly smoked.
Soon, there are plumes mushrooming up over one table after another. The restaurant’s barrel-wood-lined walls start to evoke a log cabin with the fireplace crackling, your hair smelling like you’ve slept in a state park.
’Tis the season for smoked cocktails.
As cocktail menus become ever more elaborate in the Twin Cities, smoke is increasingly an ingredient as indispensable as simple syrup, a bit of flair as whimsical as a paper umbrella. Some bartenders use it for its flavor, others for the theatrics of swirling smoke. Whatever their reason, there is no better time than autumn for a drink perfumed by campfire, with garnishes sometimes set ablaze and left with a hint of the hearth.
“The flavor of smoke just gives off a different taste profile of a drink that you can’t get from mixing with juices or syrups,” said Gary Sivyer, who as co-owner of Brick & Bourbon in Maple Grove and Stillwater devised the tube-dome setup that makes for the Smoking Gun cocktail. “It gives a different texture to the drink and picks up flavor profiles hidden in the bourbon itself.”
The Smoking Gun at Brick & Bourbon (7887 Elm Creek Blvd N., Maple Grove, 763-208-9477, brickandbourbon.com) comes two ways: the Old Fashioned, made with single-barrel bourbon, maple syrup and orange bitters and topped with the waffle, an orange peel and a slice of cherrywood-smoked bacon (of course); and a simple Campari-gin Negroni. The smoke fits right in the breakfasty Old Fashioned, while the Negroni becomes something else, with the bitterness of the Campari mellowed by the smoke.
“Smoke works well to balance out the drinks,” Sivyer said.
It is a flavor, however, that is not for everyone.
“Smoke can be really polarizing in cocktails,” said Sean Jones, who is smoking three cocktails at Fhima’s in downtown Minneapolis (40 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-353-4792, fhimasmpls.com). “Some people just don’t want anything to do with it.”
Yet it would seem there is currently an appetite for smoke.
As soon as the Smoking Gun’s lid is opened, its smoke released into the restaurant, people notice. That’s how Sivyer recently sold 70 in one night. Drinks as attention-grabbing as these catch on like, well, wildfire.
But is smoke in cocktails just smoke and mirrors?
“It’s just about show. That’s the biggest part,” said Dave Brown, bar manager at Travail in Robbinsdale (4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com). “The show of a drink can sometimes make the drink taste better than it was without a show.”
Brown should know. He’s not much of a fan of the Ron Burgundy (“It’s fine. It’s balanced. It’s not my style.”), a cross between a Manhattan and a Rob Roy that incorporates smoke from cherry cavendish tobacco. Yet the drink is indisputably Travail’s most popular and has been since owner James Winberg put it on the menu in 2014.
“We sell enough of those to pay for one chef’s salary over the course of the year,” Brown said.
The scent of the tobacco, which is piped into the glass with a smoking gun, evokes strong feelings in many of the customers who order it. “A lot of people say, ‘It smells like my grandfather,’ ” Brown said.
At the new restaurant Fhima’s, beverage director Jones is putting on his own “magic show” at the bar, with three cocktails that have smoking elements.
“We’re trying to bring the theater to the table,” Jones said. “The bar has always been theater.”
By pre-batching cocktails and having them ready on tap, the time it takes to mix and shake is now devoted to tableside demonstrations of igniting and smoking ingredients.
He’s been perfecting his Rosemary’s Baby drink for 10 years, since he started playing with fire as a bartender at Amore Victoria in Uptown Minneapolis, and later Parlour and Bradstreet Craftshouse.
“I broke a lot of glasses,” he said.
A thick sprig of rosemary is stuffed into a glass of chartreuse and set afire. After a few seconds, Jones puts out the blaze with a large ice cube. Smoke envelops the cube and continues to swirl as he pours the pre-batched cocktail (cognac, lemon, bitters) over it. The result is sweet, sour, herbaceous and faintly woodsy.
“You can’t get the flavor of rosemary without a heat exchange,” Jones explained. “That one is a practical use of fire.”
As for the Telephone Call From Istanbul, a typical Old Fashioned is served in a glass that had been set over apple wood embers.
The smoking gun is employed for the Smoke in Her Eyes, a margarita-like drink made with tequila, matcha tea and über-smoky mezcal. Jones was tired of people ordering the drink without realizing the Mexican spirit was like a boozy s’more, and sending it back when it wasn’t to their liking. Even the name of the cocktail wasn’t enough to tip customers off.
Now Jones makes sure customers know what they are getting. He fills a bottle with cherrywood smoke before pouring in the green mixture, plugs it up and swirls it all together. It looks like witch’s brew.
“This one,” he said, “is not so subtle.”