How To Flame Cocktails … Safely

Since Jerry Thomas set the first Blue Blazer on fire in the 1860s, flamed cocktails have captured the attention of bartenders and guests worldwide. “Every other drink that’s lit on fire owes something to the Blue Blazer, including two of our favorites, the Spanish Coffee and the Flaming Dr. Pepper,” says Andrew Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine. In their new book Northern Hospitality, Andrew and wife Briana talk about the art of flaming cocktails, and we recently chatted with Volk about the technique. “It’s a delight to see a skilled bartender throw a drink on fire, and the drink isn’t half-bad either,” he says.

With most cocktails, lighting booze on fire is mainly for entertainment, but in the case of the Spanish Coffee, it does actually serve a purpose. “When you light the rum in a Spanish Coffee on fire, you’ve already coated the rim of the glass with sugar, and the fire actually caramelizes that sugar on the rim, bringing a texture and flavor to the drink that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” Volk says. To light a Spanish Coffee, Volk says you need to act quickly and decisively. At Hunt + Alpine, they add 1 oz. of overproof rum to a sugar-rimmed glass and tilt the glass at an angle to light the rum on fire with a stick lighter (so you don’t burn your fingers). Once it’s on fire, they hold the bottom of the glass and rotate the glass to make sure fresh oxygen continues to fuel the fire and caramelize the sugars on the rim. After the sugar has caramelized, they add ¾ oz. of dry curaçao and ¾ oz. of coffee liqueur and watch as the flame continues to burn. To snuff it out, they top the glass with hot coffee, then they garnish with whipped cream.

For the Blue Blazer, fire “concentrates the flavors of the whisky while reducing the proof to a crowd-friendly level,” says Volk. “But way more so, it’s a real show-stopper of a drink, as you’re throwing fire between two mugs.” To make the drink, Volk starts by warming two double-walled mugs and one 8 oz. rocks glass with hot water. Prepare a station near a sink or water bucket with your warm mugs, warm glass, 2 oz. of barrel-proof whiskey (choose bourbon or Scotch), a lemon peel and a lighter or match. Discard the warm water from the mugs and in one of them, pour 2 oz. of fresh hot water. On top of that, gently pour the whiskey. Light the whiskey on fire and carefully pour the lit fire between the mugs. “Make sure you’re holding the mug handles at 12 o’clock to your knuckles, because if you hold them like you would a beer stein, you will burn yourself,” says Volk. “Start with the mugs close together, but as you get practiced and confident, slowly raise your pouring hand higher, keeping an eye on the mug you are pouring INTO at all times. After 10 or 12 throws, discard the water from the prepared rocks glass and pour the lit whiskey into the glass. Immediately express a lemon peel over the whiskey and discard the peel. Make sure the fire is out completely before serving this drink.”

Most bartenders are trained to work with fire behind the bar, but if you plan to try the technique at home, safety is critical. “There’s the sense of danger about fire that can be thrilling, but we strongly recommend adhering to some strict safely guidelines whenever mixing fire and alcohol,” Volk says. Some tips:

  • Make sure your ingredients are all within arm’s reach. “The most common mistake we’ve seen when someone starts lighting a drink on fire is not being fully prepared to execute the entire drink,” Volk says. “You want to make sure you have everything you need to complete the drink within arm’s reach so it’s easy to grab.”
  • Always practice first without fire. “Practice without fire so that you can confidently and quickly make the moves you need to when the drink is actually on fire,” Volk says.
  • If you’re the one making the flamed drinks, don’t partake in the drinks. “We have a friend who decided it was a good idea to make a Blue Blazer after he’d had a drink or three,” Volk recalls. “Needless to say, it’s truly not recommended to light drinks or anything else on fire after you’ve been drinking.”
  • Keep everything around you flame-free. “Make sure your hair is pulled completely back and any loose pieces of clothing are totally secured,” Volk adds.
  • Prepare for the worst. “We have been fortunate (and careful) enough to not have a bad incident, but keep a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher nearby,” Volk says.

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