While sometimes difficult to harness, smoky flavours can bring incredible new dimensions to a gin
By David T. Smith
Some flavour profiles are more obvious than others – “citrus” and “floral” spring to mind – but some can be more obscure: smoke, for instance. Smoke was originally going to be included within my exploration of the savoury flavour profile, but after a little preliminary investigation, it seemed worthy of its own entry in this compendium of gin characters.
Smoky and smoked gins are certainly on the rise. One of the earliest was released by Corsair in 2013 and was unlike any gin that I had tried up to that point. Full of smoked meat and smoked cheese aromas, it was fair to say that it wasn’t for everyone, but maybe it was just ahead of its time?
Today, there is a range of smoky gin on the market: some full-time expressions, others limited editions. Some of these gins are made using smoked botanicals, either deliberately, like Portobello Road Gin or Citadelle’s Saison de Witch, or accidentally, like Mt Uncle Gin. Situated in Queensland, Australia, the Mt Uncle Distillery experienced a bushfire in 2017 that left some of the surviving botanicals growing in the area with a distinctive smoked quality. Originally produced as a limited edition, the gin’s popularity has led the distillery to purposefully dry-smoke its own botanicals on an on-going basis. Meanwhile, some matured gins are rested or finished in casks that previously held peated whisky. This tends to add both a smokiness and a dry, slightly spicy woodiness to the spirit itself.
But don’t worry – if your gin of choice doesn’t have any smoke “built in”, there are a variety of ingredients that can add a wisp of smokiness in cocktail form. The most obvious of these would be a smoky whisky, such as an Islay Scotch.
Using smoky whisky
The smokiness in some Scotch whiskies typically comes from the use of peat to power the malting process; burning peat produces the unique smoky character.
The Islay Rinse
This is a fun introduction to smoky cocktails and an easy way to add a smoky twist to any gin drink. Rinse your glass with 1-2 tsp (5-10ml) of smoky whisky before discarding it and then pouring in your main cocktail. Some examples of smoky whisky include Lagavulin 16 Years Old, Johnnie Walker Black Label, Filthy Smoke 10 Years Old, and Famous Grouse Smoky Black.
Negroni: The whisky complements the cocktail’s herbal, bitter notes and provides a subtle smokiness that rounds out the drink.
Gin & Tonic: Here, the whisky adds a full-on smoky aroma, before a more balanced, woody smoke on the palate and a strong, gin-forward finish.
Martini: The whisky adds a boost of smoky character and an extra dryness to the finish.
Berlin Station Chief
This is a Cold War-era cocktail from Norman Mailer’s 1991 spy thriller, Harlot’s Ghost. The main character, Harry Hubbard, is presented with the drink by a contact who notes, “All the best Chicago hotels make them this way.” Harry describes the drink as “smooth fire, sweet ice”, and says it “just slides down”.
To make your own Berlin Station Chief, fill a mixing glass or shaker with ice. Pour over a splash of Islay whisky, making sure it coats the ice, then pour away any excess. Add 1.7oz (50ml) of dry gin and shake or stir, as you prefer.
The shaken version is exceptionally clean, with just a touch of smokiness to it; it certainly “slides down”. The stirred version is a tad more intense, with more of the whisky’s character coming through, possibly due to the slightly lower rate of dilution.
Another spirit known for its smoky character is mezcal from Mexico. In this case, the smoke comes from the pit-roasting of the piñas (agave hearts) ahead of fermentation and distillation.
Whilst a cry of “Smoky Negroni!” sounds like a mealy-mouthed cuss word worthy of Bart Simpson or Batman’s buddy Robin, it can also be a delicious drink.
- .7oz (20ml) dry gin
- .3oz (10ml) mezcal
- 1oz (30ml) red vermouth
- 1oz (30ml) Campari
Add all of the ingredients to a tumbler and stir with ice. Garnish with a flamed slice of orange peel.
The mezcal adds a lovely, savoury smoky flavour with a hint of dark chocolate – great if you want just a wisp of smoke rather than a bonfire.
Mexican Gin Tonic
- .9oz (25ml) dry gin
- .9oz (25ml) mezcal
- 5oz (150ml) tonic water (ideally something herbal, such as Fever-Tree Mediterranean)
- Lime, to garnish
Mezcal and tonic is already an increasingly popular drink, and the addition of mezcal to a G&T not only gives complexity, but adds delicious leafy notes that complement both the tonic and the garnish. The smokiness of mezcal is typically more subtle and savoury than that of Islay whisky.
Using Lapsang Souchong
Lapsang Souchong is a black tea that has been smoke-dried over a pinewood fire. It is used as a botanical in a number of gins, but can also be used in mixed drinks.
Add 1.7oz (50ml) of dry gin to a copa glass and infuse a Lapsang Souchong tea bag in the gin for 1-2 minutes, depending on how strong you’d like the tea flavour to be. Top up with 5oz (150ml) of tonic water, add plenty of ice and a lemon garnish. The infusion gives the drink a light, savoury spiciness with just a touch of smoked ham. Using a spicy, savoury gin like those made by Opihr would add extra intensity.
For other mixed drinks, a Lapsang Souchong syrup is a convenient way to add the tea’s flavour. You can easily make one of these by brewing one Lapsang Souchong tea bag for five minutes in 3.5oz (100ml) of water, adding the same amount of white sugar, and stirring until completely dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool, then refrigerate for up to two weeks.
La Femme Fumée (Smoked Lady)
by Adam Smithson
- 1oz (30ml) Plymouth Gin
- .7oz (20ml) lemon juice
- .5oz (15ml) Lapsang Soughing syrup
- 1 egg white (optional)
Shake vigorously with ice and serve.
This cocktail is a sublime combination of tart citrus, woody smoke, and the complexity of the gin. It’s a sharp drink, but can be made a little sweeter with a bit more sugar syrup. It’s also a fantastic example of a drink that is greater than the sum of its parts. For those who prefer a longer drink, simply omit the egg and add 100ml of sparkling or soda water. The drink maintains its intrigue and complexity, but in a more refreshing style.
There are only a few smoky mixers on the market at the moment, but they are well worth seeking out. Artisan Drinks makes a Barrel Smoked Cola with a light smoky aftertaste that works particularly well with classic gins and some of the lightly aged ones. Coca-Cola itself makes a “Smoky” variety for its Signature Series, which is more reminiscent of barbecue smoke – like eating a rack of ribs whilst sipping a Coke.
For fans of ginger ale, there is Fever-Tree Smoky Ginger Ale, which contains smoked Applewood water. Combined with a burst of citrus, this mixer makes a smoky but refreshing drink.
Finally, there are a number of smoked tonics available: Bexar makes a fruity and jammy smoked fig tonic syrup, and, from Italy, there is Baladin Tonica al Fumo, which uses toasted oak extract that gives drinks a delicate smokiness.
Making your own smoked drinks
To add some flair to my research, I attempted to use a smoke gun to home-smoke some drinks. This device works rather like a smoker’s pipe: wood chips are placed in the bowl and lit, then a motor blows air through the embers to generate smoke.
Initially I experimented with a Negroni. I trapped one (complete with glass and ice) beneath a clear jug before piping in the smoke. The results were visually stunning; the flavour was exceptionally smoky and, in honesty, so was the room, but it made for fun theatrics. I then tried to bottle the smoke: I made and bottled a Martini so that it filled three-quarters of a 100ml bottle, then piped in smoke and quickly resealed it. Very little smoke was left when I came to pour the drink, but its impact on the Martini was particularly pleasant.
Overall, the smoke gun is a bit of a gimmick and I wouldn’t rush out to get one just for cocktails. Better to leave the theatrics to the bar professionals.