Getting Toasted

The drama (and sometimes danger) of the flaming cocktail

Jake Stangel

The Ceres Joker may be the most Rube Goldberg–esque cocktail I’ve ever encountered. A scotch-and-sloe-gin drink, it is served at the subterranean London bar Purl, and it comes with a helium balloon tethered to the glass. The tether is actually a fuse, which the server lights upon delivering the drink. The freed balloon, which has been coated with lemon zest, rises about a foot before it detonates, infusing the immediate area with complicated scents of citrus and burnt nitrates. The goal, according to the drink’s inventor, Ryan Chetiyawardana, is “to emulate the aroma of gunpowder/rubber/struck match that’s sometimes found in sherry and extra-aged spirits.”

Chetiyawardana may be a pioneer in heliated mixology, but fiery theatrics with cocktails have a long and noble pedigree. The original flaming drink was the Blue Blazer, which appeared in the first bartender’s guide ever, published by Jerry Thomas in 1862. The drink involves high-proof scotch mixed with boiling water, which is then lit on fire and poured back and forth several times between two metal mixing cups. Adept bartenders could perform the pour with considerable distance between the cups, achieving what Thomas described as “the appearance of a continued stream of liquid fire.” It is surely a coincidence that Thomas got his start in San Francisco, a city plagued by disastrous fires during his residency.

Cocktails that make relatively discreet use of fire—typically ones in which a layer of high-proof rum is floated on top and ignited into a small, pale-blue flame—have been common over the years, but more-dramatic variations seem to be on the rise. At Apotheke, a bar in New York’s Chinatown, the bartender Albert Trummer’s fondness for fire attracted considerable attention in 2010, for both good and ill. He enjoyed unleashing a small stream of high-proof spirit down his long marble bar, lighting up a curtain of blue-and-yellow flame three feet high and six feet long. The first time he did this, he was cited for lacking an open-flame permit; during a later display, he was arrested by fire marshals. (He subsequently had a falling-out with the bar owners, and recently moved to Miami to open another establishment with the same name.)

At Trailer Happiness, in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, bartenders used to set the mood with a fire-breathing act, spitting spirit-fueled flames toward the liquor-misted copper ceiling, where a blaze would linger for several seconds, churning like mammatus clouds over Mordor. Alas, when new owners assumed control of the bar last year, they found that the practice “had worn all the copper away from the bar ceiling, exposing the plasterboard beneath,” according to Rich Hunt, one of the owners. It seemed wise to desist, so they did.

That’s probably for the best. Though impressive, such extreme pyrotechnics tend to detract from the ways in which, done right, flame and heat can transform a drink beguilingly. At Booker and Dax, part of the Momofuku empire in Manhattan, “red-hot poker” drinks are made with electrically charged rods modeled after the colonial-era loggerhead, a tool used to keep tar pliable. The modern version heats up to 1,500 degrees, and when it’s plunged into a drink, it caramelizes the sugars, giving the beverage a slightly butterscotchy flavor and a toasted top note.

The “flaming volcano bowl” has been a fixture at tiki bars since the 1950s. But Martin Cate, the owner of the San Francisco rum bar Smuggler’s Cove, has given the drink new life with his Top Notch Volcano Bowl, which features a towering yellow flame fueled by a crouton soaked in high-proof lemon extract. The server sprinkles the flame with cinnamon and nutmeg, which spark and snap above the bowl, creating a Lilliputian fireworks display. The room fills with the smell of the toasted spices, which then settle in the fruit-heavy drink, adding what Cate calls “a nice roasty flavor, with a little sharpness so it cuts the sweetness.”

In the past, Cate went further still, spraying high-proof liquor through the flame with a mister to create a formidable fireball. But he recently cut back on that practice, after several out-of-town, off-duty fire inspectors stopped in for a drink and, witnessing the process, asked him about the “accelerant.” As Cate puts it, “That’s a red flag when you own a bar.”