How fire can help you make smokin’ hot cocktails

It may seem as though fire has no place behind a bar. Temperature is always a consideration for bartenders, of course, but it’s usually about making sure things are cold enough, so why bring heat and fire into the equation and risk watery cocktails? It can open the door to a world of super-complex, incredible flavours, that’s why. Always remember, though, that fire is destructive and must be treated with respect by bartenders and chefs if it’s to be harnessed in productive ways.

Before we get into how to use fire (and, indeed, how not to), it’s important to first understand why we use it at all. Alejandro Cuellar a chef based in Bogota, Colombia believes the appeal of fire lies in our primal instincts: ‘For humans, fire is very appealing, it’s hypnotic, it has a lot of meaning,’ he says ‘so when you’re putting a menu together, words like “smoked”, “caramelised” and “grilled” sound very interesting. They make you hungry, they make you crave what you’re reading.’

Beyond this romantic, caveman-like association, there are scientific reasons heat and fire appeal to us; ‘Compare a boiled potato to a golden, crispy, crunchy potato, straight out of the oven,’ says Alejandro ‘one is a lot more appealing than the other.’ That’s thanks to the maillard reaction – the process by which heat browns proteins and carbohydrates, in the process creating savoury flavours that our brains are hardwired to find appealing. Caramelisation, another heat-based technique, has a similar effect. ‘Everyone likes sugar,’ says Alejandro, ‘but if you heat it you get caramel, which has a distinct aroma and flavour that people can’t help but love.’

But how can these benefits be practically applied to cocktails, and where should a bartender begin? Garnishes and hot infusions are an obvious place to start, and Diageo 

Reserve Global Cocktailian Lauren Mote recommends  keeping it simple: ‘The charring power and flavour of fire cannot be replaced by anything. Start with things you can predict the outcome of, like pineapples, apples, carrots, wood,’ she says. For a bolder approach, take aim at a major component of a cocktail. For Alejandro, the Bloody Mary is the perfect training ground; ‘Try using roasted tomatoes’ he says, ‘the  finished drink will have more flavour and be more complex.’

Initial experiments completed, it’s time to push these simple techniques a touch further. ‘Juice the pineapple, preserve the apples with sugar, pickle the carrots and infuse the wood’, recommends Lauren. Don’t be afraid to use heat-based techniques in combination, either. For Alejandro, this is the only way to take full advantage of fire; ‘the maillard reaction can be made in a pan, but you can also make with a grill,’ he says. ‘If that grill has wood on it, you’re making the maillard reaction and smoking the product. So, imagine taking a pineapple on a grill, with applewood – the finished product is going to be super complex.’

Astonishing as the results can be, though, the intensity of flavours like smoke and caramel means it’s all too easy to overdo things. This is especially true when using lighter-coloured, more delicately flavoured spirits, but even darker, more robust bases best benefit from a light-touch approach. ‘Not only do you risk ruining the balance of the cocktail, but also the work of the people who make the spirits,’ say Alejandro. ‘Imagine over-smoking a whisky that took 20 years to make – that’s a sin!’

So, working with fire is not without its pitfalls, and there’s a learning curve to contend with. But do the end results justify the risk? Alejandro certainly thinks so, and suggests the key to success is a shift in a bartender’s mindset. ‘People have to stop thinking that these techniques come from another discipline, it’s as much a part of mixology as it is a part of cooking,’ he says. ‘You’re simply taking ingredients and trying to transform them into something more complex and more delicious.’

Lauren Mote’s KILLER QUEEN – adaptation on the 1970s Piña Colada:


3oz or 85ml of Zacapa 23 YO Rum, influenced with spices*

2oz or 55ml of  Amarula fruit cream Liqueur

3oz or 85ml of fire-roasted pineapple, juiced**

2 scoops of caramelized Coconut gelato***

2 dashes of plum & root beer bitters


Dry shake all ingredients to emulsify the gelato, before shaking with a few ice cubes to dilute. Single strain neat into a Collins glass, or wooden cup and garnish with second-life fruits/ingredients and a metal spoon straw

Zacapa 23 YO Rum, infused with spices – yield, 1 bottle

1 x 750ml bottle of Zacapa 23 YO Rum

Toast the following spices in a dry pan on medium heat (remove once the spices become fragrant)

3 tonka beans

½ vanilla bean

4 lemon peels

1 whole nutmeg, crushed

10 whole cacao bean, crushed

6 cloves

10 all spice berries

1 stick cassia or true cinnamon bark

10 black peppercorn

Infuse spices and rum together in a cool, dark place for at least 24 hours before straining out the spices and storing in a clean, dated bottle. This will last indefinitely when stored with other alcohol in a cool, dark place. You can also keep the spices, dehydrate them and blitz into a delicious powder. Add 25% salt, and 75% sugar to make a sweet yet salty rim for the glass, or dust over to bring more flavour to the nose, and the top of the cocktail.

Fire-roasted pineapple, juiced – yield, 1 litre

2 medium pineapples, skinned and cored

2tbsp of unsalted butter or coconut oil

Fire – grill/BBQ, open flame or oven

Prep the pineapples and keep the skins, top and core for other applications. Brush the pineapple in fat and add to the flame. Allow the fire to penetrate the flesh and create some grill marks or change in colour. Once golden to dark brown, remove the pineapple from the heat and cool before adding to a juicer. Make sure to triple strain to remove pulp and store in a clean, labeled food container and keep refrigerated for up to 3-5 days.

Caramelized Coconut Gelato – yield, 1 litre

1 can of organic coconut milk

1 can of organic coconut cream

1 cup of grade A amber maple syrup

½ cup of liquid honey, blended with a touch of coconut milk to get the consistency

1 pinch of sea salt or kosher salt

1 tbsp vanilla extract or aromatic bitters

Blend the coconut milk, sweeteners, salt and extract in a saucepan – lightly caramelise the mixture over medium heat, whist stirring constantly. Chill the mixture for at least 2 hours in the fridge, before placing in an ice cream maker or a 1/3 pan in the freezer. Follow the ice maker instructions, or for the freezer just make sure you stir it a few times to ‘churn’ it. Freeze for 3-4 hours until firm. Pre-scoop all the gelato into appropriate servings for the cocktail, and store in freezer bags or an air-tight container.