I’d like to argue that smoke is a flavor. After all, much of what we taste comes from our sense of smell, and even vegetarians can weaken at their knees if there’s the scent of bacon in the air. Tell me that’s not smoky pork calling to some basic desire we all have had since we grunt-chanted around fires in caves eons ago.
So my goal this summer was to give you as much smoke in a cocktail as possible. That means the base had to be mezcal, tequila’s artisanal cousin, cooked in an underground pit. While tequila must be made from blue agave, mezcal may come from a wide variety of agave, even if it’s generally espadín. There are also regional issues about where tequila versus mezcal can come from—tequila may only be made in four Mexican states while mezcal can come from nine, including its current artisanal export hotbed, Oaxaca. One way to think of mezcal is by this analogy—Islay : single malt scotch :: mezcal : tequila. Burnt earth. Smoke. Wonder.
You do need to forget all those old myths about mezcal—there shouldn’t be a worm, and even if there is one and you establish your cojones/drunkenness by forcing it down, you won’t hallucinate. Mezcal has become a bit hoity-toity, even: In a 2015 poll of the top 100 bartenders, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal topped the World’s 50 Best Bar Brands report.
There’s one problem with the wonderful Del Maguey line, though—much of it is so expensive, you will swear you’re hallucinating looking at the price tag. Instead, I’d like to suggest Bruxo No. 1 Espadín as a good brand with which to start. You can find it for $30 retail, so it won’t break your bank; it’s only 40% alcohol, so it won’t break your liver; and it’s flat out delicious. Even better, Bruxo is no brute, so you get that smoke in a smooth package.
The trick for developing the cocktail, then, was how to add smoke to smoke. It’s summer, so of course my mind ran to the barbecue. While nothing beats a good Santa Maria–style tri-tip, people often forget the joys of grilling fruit, too. If you’re lucky enough to have a tree, or just wise enough to go to the farmers market (hello, Regier Family Farms!), summer means the height of stone fruit, in particular the peach. For our purposes, go with a ripe yellow varietal.
Now, you could just grill peaches and serve them with ice cream (hello, McConnell’s!), or you could also grill them before the rest of your meal, since you’ll be using them for the Summer & Smoke. That is the one tricky part of this drink; you really need to plan ahead to get your fire roaring in time to make the drink components, then cook your dinner after a cocktail. Of course you could also plan ahead, do the fruit after your meal if your grill remains hot (and you’ve scrubbed off whatever else you’ve cooked, as even the best halibut or T-bone isn’t what the mixologist ordered as an under-flavor), and save it for the next night or two. One of the joys/terrors of smoke is it’s hard to shake, even if it’s been refrigerated (and let the fruit come to room temperature before you use it that second evening so it gets fuller-flavored).
But there’s more smoke where there’s fire. Citrus grills nicely, too, so slice a few limes in quarters and let them get good grill marks; you can even BBQ the rind side if you have the time. As with the peaches, keep an eye on things, as you’re not trying to create a new drying technique—you’re going to want juice from all this smoky-good fruit. Give it a moment to rest off the fire, so it settles and is easier for you to handle without mitts. Feel free to do this with more limes than you need for the drinks, as everything from a salsa fresca to a fish taco will appreciate a drip of smoky citrus. After all, half the fun of mixology is considering culinary spin-offs from what you’re concocting.
There is one final trick to get more smoke into the drink, and this one involves actual smoke. You will be pouring the drink into old-fashioned glasses without ice, which means a good half the glass will be empty; well, at least empty of liquid. Because just before you pour in the shaken cocktail, take a rosemary sprig and set it afire—fresh ones will spark up a bit but not cook to a cinder. Quickly drop the sprig in the glass, where its smoke will catch and curl. The aromatics of this touch, especially with the extra room for your nose to dip in the large-ish glass, will be wondrous.
There’s one last note from the testing kitchen. I really thought this drink could use a rim of sea salt and crushed rosemary, but this idea never quite worked. First, it meant one’s nose, so happy with toasty scents, got coated with green stuff on the glass. Second, it pushed the drink too much to its obvious cousin, the margarita. Summer & Smoke needs its own place in the pantheon, even if it’s not a classic. Yet.