I've just begun reading Michael Pollan's latest book, Cooked. It's a veritable tome, weighing in at 468 pages, taking up the daunting challenge of tracing the long history of cooking as a cultural and chemical process. He divides the book, and therefore cooking, into four parts that correspond with the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Each part connects these elements to a type of cooking - fire with barbecue, water with boiling, air with baking, and earth with fermentation.
I'm choosing to credit my current rumination of the book's first part - fire - for my recent fascination with cocktails-set-aflame.
During a recent evening out with friends at a lovely spot in Omaha, The Berry and Rye (yes, Nebraska is cool!), I scoured the menu for drinks that arrived at the table with some element of drama, preferably of the blue-orange, flickering kind. I eventually settled on two drinks, neither of which came with such smoke and mirrors; each did come, however, with tastes so wonderful that the lack of flames became mere embers of disappointment that I happily raked over with things like tarragon syrup, chocolate bitter liqueur, and dill-infused vodka. Still, inspired by the drinks we observed being prepared with flame or smoke - in particular the featured Trinidad Smoke - we decided as a group to open a cocktail bar of our own where patrons would receive all their drinks on fire. I'll keep you updated on our progress.
In the name of a "research trip," I went in search a week later for more, finding a cocktail that took fiery to heart. Not only was it set on fire, but it was made with chili-infused don's mix (a grapefruit-y and cinnamon-y simple syrup). "the walker," as it's called, marries four roses bourbon, zucca amaro, passion fruit chili-infused dons mix, lemon, and orange. It was served with half of a lime, pulp up, filled with bourbon and set aflame. It came to me ablaze and I had the joy of extinguishing the flame when I was ready, stirring the caramelized, citrusy, sugary goodness, dispersing it throughout the tiki mixture. But, you may wonder: why?
To cook is to transform. At its most basic, cooking is our way of outsourcing digestion for which we don't have the energy or capacity to perform (think: raw meat). But why cook a cocktail? If there's one task we don't seem to wish to delegate, it would be imbibing.
I haven't been able to come up with a satisfying, curiosity-quenching answer to that question, but I have, à la Pollan, traced this tradition of igniting alcohol back to its inception.
Starting with my limited knowledge, I recalled an evening a few months ago at the southern-cuisine spot, Juniper, where I witnessed the bartender performing some flashy acrobatics. (Remind me to tell you more about this place.) In the dimly-lit, brick-wall-encased dining room, flanked by colorful vintage refrigerators and long wooden tables handmade from reclaimed wood from the surrounding area, this daring bartender began pouring a thin, continuous flame from cup to cup. He extinguished the flame by placing the empty cup over the one filled with fire, and then served with a garnish - as if any more flare were required - to his awestruck guests.
I had heard of this cocktail before, but never encountered it on a menu. The original fiery concoction was developed around 1862, when bartender Jerry Thomas revealed his signature hot toddy with a twist. Clearly, that twist was more than a lemon peel. Named the Blue Blazer (sweet video!), the drink transforms the usual whiskey-mixed-with-sugar-and-water affair into a liquid flame poured from one silver mug to another. I'm coming to learn that the Blue Blazer looks subdued when placed next to recent innovations. Wayne Curtis details the rise in pyrotechnics, and I assure you it is a delightful read.
You see, the tradition of fire is long, complex, and robust. And while there's no particularly logical explanation for why we set fire to our alcohol, it's clear that it's just good fun. It's dramatic, theatrical. I quite like that part of it. If you're looking for a way to transform your drinking routine, might I suggest you add a flicker and a flare. Er, maybe ask a professional do that for you. You won't be disappointed.