Photo: Kalapun Taras, Flickr
I often say that a bartender should be a little bit of a magician. Taking a fresh slice of orange peel and drawing out the oils from the skin via a lit match makes a nice spark in a darkly lit bar, and always captures guests' attention. Besides introducing flavorful orange oil into your cocktail, the trick also releases the delicious scent of orange into the air.
This trick is baby play compared to the antics of the grandfather of bartending, Jerry Thomas. To entertain his guests back in the late 1800's, he'd pour flaming high-proof whisky back and forth between two mugs. Cocktail historian David Wondrich (author of a book on Thomas' life, called IMBIBE) has taught many bartenders how to make a famous fired-up drink called the Blue Blazer. He even has an instructional video on You Tube. Slow Food NYC's Slow Drink Week has featured a Blue Blazer competition with some of the biggest names in the business, including Gary Regan, Dale Degroff, and Mr. Wondrich himself.
The only flamed drink I was taught in my early bartending days was a Flaming Dr. Pepper: A shot glass of amaretto topped with Bacardi 151 rum, lit on fire and then dropped into a glass of beer somehow tastes like a Dr Pepper soda.
I recently discovered a Cucaracha Flameada, Flaming Cockroach, made with equal parts Kahlua, tequila, and 151 proof rum. The high octane alcohol is set on fire in a brandy snifter. To prevent burning your lips on the hot glass, the liquid is imbibed through a straw.
While true distilled absinthe was struggling for existence in the marketplace, the Czech brand Hill's popularized the ritual of lighting sugar and absinthe on fire. This was not some long respected ritualized way of drinking absinthe, however. The marketing of this modern method was necessary due to the fact that brands like Hill's contained no anise and would not turn cloudy when the traditional cold water and sugar cube are added.
These days, lighting anything on fire in a bar sets off controversy. Fire departments hit bars with fines for not having "open flame" permits for anything on fire, including a candle. Mixologist Albert Trummer was recently arrested in his New York City bar Apotheke for setting his bar top aflame with lit alcohol. New York's Brother Jimmy's BBQ and Bacardi rum found itself in litigation recently after a bartender allegedly lit Bacardi 151 along the bar resulting in flames that injured a customer.
Something tells me that no matter what, fire will always be a part of the restaurant/bar world in some form. I cannot imagine a visit to NOLA's historic restaurant Antoine's without the flaming presentation of a Café Brulot or a Baked Alaska.
Alabama-born LeNell Smothers defines herself first and foremost as a bartender, but she's been called many things -- most recently, the proprietress of Casa Cóctel with partner Demián Camacho Santa Ana. She's owned her own whiskey label, called Red Hook Rye, and has been recognized by her home state as an honorary Colonel. Other interests include gin, sin and men.