Set the holidays ablaze
Warming bartending techniques for the adventurous
Getting cozy by the hearth, warming up from sledding with a hot cup of cocoa, and roasting chestnuts on an open fire are all ways to turn cold, dark days into seasonal fun to look forward to. But what about fire in your cocktail?
Many traditionally flamed cocktails are perfect for the holidays, highlighting in-season citrus, darker liquors, and an abundance of aromatic baking spices.
While these cocktails are not often made these days, you can utilize the ways that bartenders have been incorporating fire in cocktails for centuries. And oh yeah, please don’t forget the safety meeting at the end.
Flaming an orange peel
Although flaming an orange peel seems simple and straightforward, the devil is in the details with this guest-wowing experience. Flaming adds a smoky aroma and depth to the oils in the citrus.
You can use flamed citrus peels to elevate any old fashioned, holiday punch, or other beverage of your choice. For our purposes here we will use oranges; however, you can use other citrus peels if desired. Oranges happen to be the most popular citrus found in flamed recipes and, in my opinion, the most delicious.
Essentially, when you set an orange peel on fire, you are forcefully spraying the natural oils in the peel through a flame. Have you ever seen a movie where someone turns an ordinary can of hair spray into a spectacular flame thrower? It’s kinda like that.
First, start with a nice, firmly fleshed orange. Look for smooth, brightly colored skin and a thick peel. Flimsy peels or old oranges won’t have enough oil in the peel to flame properly. Use a “y” shaped peeler or a sharp knife to cut a nice wide peel from the orange without getting too much of the pith. Don’t squeeze the peel until you are ready to flame it—you’ll want all of those delicious oils to be preserved until the big moment.
Next, light a match. Cocktail aficionados will tell you to never use a lighter, as the fuel adds an unpleasant flavor and aroma to the cocktail. If looking impressive is your goal or you don’t have matches, go ahead and use whatever you like.
Now it’s time to shine. Holding the peel between your thumb and index and middle finger, face the peel of the orange toward the match directly over the cocktail glass. Squeeze forcefully and the oils will pass through the flame, creating a burst of fire and impressing your company.
Setting drinks on fire is not new. Before Prohibition, bars often set punches on fire for a crowd-worthy display. The most infamous cocktail was the Blue Blazer, which required pouring flaming-blue whiskey between two tankards about ten to twelve times before serving. Set-ting cocktails and punches on fire often requires special equipment for safety and servings such as a café brûlot set or scorpion punch bowls. Luckily, a fire garnish is a much less expensive option.
Several classic cocktails use fire as a garnish. The scorpion bowl is famously garnished with a flame in the center of the communal beverage. Most often a unique ceramic punch bowl that has a center meant for the flame is used; however, a hollowed-out lime cup, filled with 151 rum, lit on fire, then sent out to float in a highly-decorative tiki bowl can be used.
Use high-proof alcohol for flaming garnishes in ceramic bowls with a built-in chamber for fire or a floating lime hull. (For reference, vodka is almost always 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol) Standard-proof alcohol should be used for larger format drinks, such as a flaming punch. Brandy and triple sec are both classic punch fuels. While you can set vodka on fire, you will likely not see a noticeable flame and it won’t last long. Choose spirits that are fifty proof and above. The three most commonly used spirits are Everclear (grain alcohol), Bacardi 151, and green Chartreuse. Everclear should not be consumed on its own, and some of the higest-alcohol versions are illegal in several states, so I recommend reaching for a high-proof rum or green Chartreuse instead. Wray and Nephew make a high-proof rum that is inexpensive, imbibable, and delicious.
A few commonsense tips keep your efforts from ruining a party. Never blow out flaming alcohol, ever. Allow the alcohol to burn off on its own or snuff out the fire. Blowing the flame out can spread the highly flammable liquid, setting clothing, curtains, objects, or even people on fire. Never good. Snuff out the flame with a fire-retardant device, such as a ceramic coffee cup or metal pan, to remove oxygen, and the fire will die. Use something with a handle, as the fire is hot. Never pour alcohol over a flame; it can spread up the stream of alcohol and cause serious injury. Always pour the alcohol into an appropriate container first, then gently set the liquid aflame with plenty of safe room for your guests.
My suggestion is to avoid shots that are set on fire entirely (and any bar that serves them). Too many people make the mistake of thinking that if they are served shots that are on fire, they are somehow safe to drink. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case.
Lastly, if you are planning an incendiary display in your home, make sure your smoke detectors are in good working order, loose hair and clothing are secured, and always have a fire extinguisher at hand.
Or just go to your favorite cocktail bar and let the professionals handle it.