My obsession with the aroma and flavor of smoke has led me to some great scotches and mezcals, a smoked beer from Germany, an array of mostly disappointing bottles of liquid smoke flavoring, and a variety of smoky colognes. I love smoke.
I went in search of bartender Eben Freeman’s famous Waylon cocktail, a smoked-Coca Cola and bourbon combination, but when I got to his SoHo bar, it had been replaced by Lani Kai, Julie Reiner’s superb new quasi-tiki bar. Which was bad news and good news at the same time.
I was ecstatic when I saw the Smoked Maple Collins on the menu at Applewood in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, and even more thrilled when I tasted it. Bartender Justin Briggs used Applewood’s smoker, usually reserved for food, to smoke some maple syrup for this whiskey Collins, and the result was inspiring.
So I bought a stove-top smoker online. For months I used it only for salmon and chicken. Finally, I decided to experiment. I eschewed maple syrup because it’s expensive and I didn’t want to ruin it, so I used agave syrup. The wisdom behind smoking maple syrup, as opposed to trying to smoke the bourbon itself, was that a thick, sugary syrup will take the smoke—but straight liquids will not. Eben Freeman didn’t smoke Coca Cola, he smoked the syrup that makes Coke before he ran it through a soda gun.
The stove-top smoker is essentially a steel box. You put tiny wood chips (almost sawdust, really) in the bottom of the box, and set a steel tray on top of the pile. You put your food—or in this case, a pyrex tray with a layer of agave syrup in it—in the box and slide closed the lid. It goes on a single burner on the stove, medium heat. The inside will get up to about 375 degrees, cooking your food as an oven would (salmon will take about 25 minutes). The wood chips in the box smolder, never quite catching flame, and fill the box with hot smoke. Some of it will leak from the box, so it’s important to use a fan or open a window, but it’s not so much smoke (usually) that it’s impractical. I let the agave syrup infuse with smoke from alderwood chips for 12 minutes, and when I took it out, the syrup was barely hot, but perfectly smoke-favored. And it smelled amazing. This was so easy, and so worthwhile.
I tried out about a half a teaspoon of the smoked agave syrup in a glass with Rittenhouse Bonded Rye. I figured the 100-proof rye would stand up well to a little sweetness, and boy did it ever. The result was exquisite: rye is a little spicier, a little more flavorful than a smooth bourbon, and it responded very well to the mixture of earthy smoke and sweetness. This was a cocktail all by itself. When I added a dash of Fee Bros. Aromatic Bitters, it was even better.
Next, I tried the same proportions in a glass of Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy (which I’ve always called applejack, though Laird’s Applejack, a different product now, is technically about half grain spirits). Again, it’s a 100-proof spirit. Wow. The apple brandy flavor is a natural for smoke, and the addition of a little sweetness brings out the fruit.
Later, I tried a little bit of smoked agave syrup with rum, and while it was tasty, it just didn’t stand up the way the rye and applejack did.
The stove-top smoker is a simple, easy-to-use contraption—and the “Gourmet Mini Smoker” costs only $33. Camerons, the company that makes the smoker, sells a variety of wood chips, too. My smoker came with alderwood and hickory, and I haven’t liked the pungent flavor of hickory in my meats, so I opted for alderwood in my agave syrup. Camerons also sells applewood, bourbon-soaked oak, cherry, maple, mesquite, oak and pecan for $4.25 per pint. I used a Tablespoon to smoke the agave syrup. After using the smoker a few times, I haven’t made much of a dent in my 1oz. sample woodchip packs. I highly recommend experimentation.
And I have a whole list of new experiments to try: more cocktails and spirits, more syrups to smoke (maple is definitely next), and more woods to smoke with. Either way, I’ll be making smoked agave syrup a staple of my little home bar.