The Magic of Smoke

By Ian Wickman   |   May 31, 2022
The Bitter Smoke balances the bitter-sweet quality of Aperol and grapefruit with wisps of roasted agave

Grilling season is officially here, and summer is unofficially kicking off. It’s time to explore one of my favorite flavors to incorporate into summertime cocktails: smoke. The exquisite character of smoke evokes something ancestral in us, the smell of a wood-burning fire or the aroma of delicious food grilling away over a bed of hot coals. I love bringing smoke into a cocktail this time of year, especially with grilled foods. You’ll often find me sitting outside enjoying a sip with friends while the BBQ happily spreads mouth watering aromas into the air.

The Concept

Not all smoke is created equal and there are a variety of different flavors that can be produced – the peaty funk of an Islay Scotch, the roasted agave of Mezcal, or the wood fire smoke of a smoked simple syrup. Each of these flavors brings different characteristics to the table. Each delicious in its own right, but also handled a little differently when pairing flavors. Depending on how much you enjoy the flavor of smoke, you can vary the depth of that flavor – from just a hint to unleashing the full power of its presence.

The Details

Let’s start by exploring a few of the ingredients and techniques at our disposal. Perhaps the most well-known smoky ingredient that comes to mind is Scotch, especially from the Islay region, which often has a deep smoky flavor in the finished spirit. This flavor is produced by taking peat, a partially decaying organic matter, that is harvested, dried, and then used as fuel to smoke the barley that forms the base of Scotch. Along with that pronounced smoky flavor comes the flavor of peat as well, which has a decided funk that I love, but doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone. 

Another smoky spirit that is rapidly gaining popularity is mezcal. This spirit, like tequila, is produced from the heart of the agave plant. In tequila production, the core of the agave plant is steamed, whereas with mezcal, it is roasted in stone-lined pits and covered in earth to smolder. This method produces deeply flavorful smoke while also bringing the agave character into the finished product. Almost the way the flavor of a vegetable changes as it is grilled, this same flavor transformation is brought through in mezcal.

The final ingredient we will discuss today, one of my favorites to make at home and keep around all summer, is smoked simple syrup. Making your own simple syrups is one of the easiest ways to bring additional flavor to your home cocktails. This is no exception and is created by making a light syrup (3 or 4 parts water to 1 part sugar), then putting it in a shallow, wide dish, like a cake pan, and smoking it on a smoker or grill for several hours. Smoked until the flavor has fully incorporated into the syrup and has reduced to a more normal ratio of water to sugar. Since the flavor is almost exclusively from the smoke, your choice of type of wood greatly influences the outcome. I’m partial to hickory or mesquite but other varieties bring beautiful notes as well. The results from this method are a little more variable. Each batch may take a different amount of time to produce the same flavors and may reduce more or less to create a slightly different level of sugar. This just means you need to taste it along the way and when mixing your cocktails to ensure the balance is correct.

Now that we have discussed some ingredients, let’s discuss some different methods of using these ingredients to produce the result you want. The simplest is to just substitute your ingredient of choice into a classic cocktail. For example, using Scotch in a Manhattan (actually called a Rob Roy). Try using mezcal instead of tequila in a Paloma or smoked simple syrup in your next Old Fashioned. The results are magical, creating a completely different cocktail with a simple substitution.

If these seem perhaps too smoke forward or your friends would prefer something a little lighter, it is easy to split the base spirit. For example, use half tequila and half mezcal in that Paloma or rinse your glass with Scotch in your next Manhattan. The results are still incredible and may appeal to a wider range of palates.

The Cocktail Inspiration

Here is a cocktail that I have been making for several years and is a favorite amongst my family and friends. Using mezcal, or a split between mezcal and tequila, gives you a beautiful smoke flavor that can be adjusted for everyone at your table. Given the time of year, it’s only appropriate that it can also be enjoyed outside in the afternoon and sipping away into the evening. Pairing it with Aperol and grapefruit juice for a beautiful color as well as bittersweet balance, this sip gives you delicious notes of agave and the perfect balance of bitter and sweet, citrus and smoke, and is so easy to make.

The Bitter Smoke

1 oz Mezcal
1 oz Reposado Tequila
1 oz Aperol
2 oz fresh grapefruit juice

Garnish: Dehydrated grapefruit wheel, ideally charred with a kitchen torch.


Add all ingredients to a shaking tin and shake thoroughly for about 5 – 10 seconds until well chilled and slightly diluted. Strain into a tall glass with ice, garnish with a dehydrated wheel of grapefruit, charred or not.  

Ian Wickman creates exceptional craft cocktails honed to the seasons. Recipes, photography, and writing for brands, media, restaurants, events, and individuals.; Email:; Instagram: @idealistfoods


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