Flaming drinks and showmanship give new meaning to getting lit
Jerry Thomas is to bartending what P. T. Barnum is to circuses — simply unforgettable.
Even if one could overlook the two pet white mice running about on his shoulders and around his bowler hat, the expensive jewelry, flashy clothes and solid silver barware adorned with precious stones, one could never turn away from watching him make drinks.
He was an outrageous showman who set the bar world on fire.
That isn’t just a phrase. He actually struck a match and set things afire.
Born in 1832, Thomas owned a succession of bars in New York and also became one of the first bartenders paid to tour, serving up drinks in cities from New Orleans to Chicago and over to San Francisco and later in Europe.
At one point, he was earning more than $100 a week, which some noted at the time surpassed the salary of the vice president of the United States. His place in history became permanent in 1862 when he published “How to Mix Drinks, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” the first book of cocktail recipes ever published in the United States.
Included in that first book and several of the amended and updated versions that followed over the next several decades was Thomas’ signature Blue Blazer, a drink, not a coat.
For such a renowned mixologist, Thomas’ cocktail seems less than inspiring. It’s nothing more than a wine-glass portion of Scotch whisky, water, sugar and a lemon peel garnish. But the Blue Blazer wasn’t about the drink. Like Thomas, it was about the show.
Thomas would pour the scotch and a little boiling water into a large mug. Taking a match, he would ignite the scotch and then, with arms wide, raise the flaming mug high in one hand and pour its contents into an empty mug held a distance away in his other hand.
The result was a steady stream of fire going back and forth until the flames subsided. At that point, he would add the sugar, toss in the garnish and present the drink to an amazed imbiber on the other side of the bar.
One such amazed imbiber, one known to occasionally get lit in the figurative sense, was President Ulysses S. Grant, who was so impressed, he handed Thomas a presidential cigar.
The Blue Blazer wasn’t the first flaming cocktail ever served, but it was the first recorded. Certainly, bartenders everywhere have been playing with fire ever since.
The reason to send a cocktail up in flames is about 90 percent show, although it can add some subtle new flavors and scents to some drinks. Thomas’ stream of fire did little to improve what was basically a scotch and water. In fact, when served, it contained less alcohol, much of it having been burned off. Still, no one can deny the dramatic flair.
“You can make a cocktail as complex as you want,” said Matthew Hough, a barman at Daiquiri Time Out, a craft cocktail lounge that serves up a number of flaming drinks at 2701 Market St. in Galveston. “But once you serve a drink with something flaming on top, you’ve reached the peak of drink presentation.”
There are myriad ways to flame a cocktail.
“You will need something at least ‘Navy Strength’ or 57 percent ABV (80 proof or more) to ignite,” Hough said.
Overproof rums like Bacardi 151 are a favorite among bartenders with matches. These rums with an alcohol content over 75 percent tend to burn long and bright and are perfect for drinks where the intent is to float the flammable alcohol on the top of a prepared drink.
One of Hough’s favorite drinks to make at Daiquiri Time Out is The Infamous DTO Zombie, in which overproof rum is poured over a sugar cube in half of a hollowed-out lime shell, then ignited.
“The flame caramelizes the sugar and, after blowing out the flame, the drinker can then add it to the drink to provide a touch of deep richness if they find the drink a little tart,” Hough said.
Using a lemon, lime or small orange rind bowl is a showy but safer way to add flames to the cocktail hour. It’s done by cutting the fruit in half, hollowing it out, and then adding a little flammable liquor. Placing a sugar cube inside the shell creates a kind of wick for the flame and also weighs the cup down, helping to prevent it from turning over in the drink. The method sometimes is used in large punch bowls in which several flaming cups can be floated at the same time.
Any alcohol with a high enough proof can be flamed, but the most common include vodka, bourbon and tequila. More exotic possibilities include Sambuca, the Italian liqueur. It’s a favorite because it produces a deep blue flame that adds to the show.
Bright green absinthe is another favorite. Absinthe has an unusually high proof, sometimes as much as 150, so it’s easy to light, is colorful and emits a wonderful aroma. Rather than setting a glass of the liqueur on fire, many prefer soaking a sugar cube in absinthe, then placing it in a perforated spoon balanced on the rim of the glass. As the sugar cube burns, the caramel oozes into the drink.
Another great choice for the aroma alone is Grand Marnier, which adds a burnt orange smell and taste to a drink.
Besides the Blue Blazer, other famous drinks on fire include the Flaming B-52, Backdraft, Flaming volcano, volcano bowl, the Tiki Love Bowl and the Flaming Zombie.
Although it sounds like a truly Texas drink, the Flaming Dr Pepper doesn’t include the state’s favorite soft drink. Someone just thought it tasted like it. The drink involves putting an ounce of amaretto liqueur and half an ounce of overproof rum in a shot glass and lighting it. While it is burning, the shot glass is quickly dropped into a cup of beer.
One of the drawbacks of flaming cocktails is that combining fire and alcohol is dangerous. Cocktail hour should never involve paramedics and firefighters.
Even professionals like Hough will testify to the hazards.
“I have definitely seen and dealt with mishaps around fire,” he said. “Careful instructions are always given to bar patrons around drinks involving fire, but they still do happen. I’ve seen flaming trails of alcohol spill onto the bar.
“I have even spilled flaming alcohol onto my hand before. But in both cases, I was able to quickly and calmly snuff the flames with a wet bar towel and prevented any serious injuries or damage.”
Among the safety tips are using long fireplace matches or other long-reach lighters to ignite the alcohol. Make sure to remove any plastic straws or garnish holders from the drink, and never drink the alcohol while it’s still on fire. It will hurt. Also, take a moment to remember that fire is hot. That heat will transfer to the glass.
Be cautious if blowing out a flame. Blowing too hard causes the alcohol to spill while still on fire.
“Have a small fire extinguisher or container of water and even a wet towel to stop any fires that may ensue,” Hough said. “Be sure to keep combustibles away from your workspace. Most importantly, don’t panic. When flaming cocktails, the amount of fire involved should be small and easily extinguished.”
With Independence Day this month, flaming drinks certainly fit right in with all the pyrotechnics that dominate the days, and with the same amount of caution taken with any kind of fireworks, they can bring on the same kind of oohs and aahs.
This signature flaming drink is a favorite of Daiquiri Time Out bartender Matthew Hough. It’s derived from the classic tiki drink invented in 1934 in California.
The Infamous DTO Zombie
½ ounce overproof rum, plus some for flaming
½ ounce fresh pineapple juice
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce passion fruit purée
½ ounce simple syrup
2 dashes angostura bitters
1 sugar cube
½ lime, hollowed out
Pour ½ ounce of overproof rum, pineapple juice, lemon juice, lime juice, fruit purée, bitters and simple syrup over ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until well chilled. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice.
Place the sugar cube in the lime shell and pour over enough rum to fill about half the shell. Carefully place this on the ice at the top of the glass.
Using a long match or long-reach lighter, ignite the rum. Let the rum burn out before submerging the lime bowl in the drink.