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Understanding Cocktail Alchemy

A great cocktail is more than a mix of liquids. It is a delicate alchemy of science, chemistry, physics and psychology.

Modern alchemists, or bartenders, are reinterpreting these ancient recipes with cutting edge techniques. Their cocktails are like a confluence of the kitchen, the laboratory and the apothecary. They are healing elixirs for the body, mind and soul.


Fire is an exothermic chemical process that converts a fuel to carbon dioxide and water by breaking its molecular bonds. This releases stored energy in the form of light and heat. Light is emitted as the electrons in the atoms of the burning material jump to higher energy levels – and back again – as they fall into their new chemical state. This process is known as incandescence.

Light is an important part of smoke because it allows us to see the particles that make up the haze. But there is more to smoke than just light. It is also a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases.

The gases produced during the combustion of a substance include carbon monoxide, water vapor, hydrogen and other volatile organic compounds. Smoke also contains a variety of other chemicals depending on the material being burned.

For example, kiln-dried wood is less watery than fresh-cut wood and therefore produces more smoke. The different compounds in the wood also produce their own flavor profiles. Cellulose and hemicellulose break apart to release sugars that lend a sweetness to the smoke while lignin breaks down into phenolics which add spiciness.

It is a combination of these elements that makes up the complex, nuanced flavors of smoke. This is why many bartenders use the Ringelmann scale to describe smoke color – it is an easy way to communicate how much smoke a particular material is emitting. But the scale is only a rough guide, as the color of smoke can be heavily dependent on light conditions and the skill of the observer.


Water is a universal solvent—its hydrogen bonds with other molecules break and reform at faster than 200 femtoseconds, allowing it to disperse even the most viscous substances. Its unique properties make it a crucial substance to the universe.

In a cocktail, it dissolves salts and acids and allows flavors to mix and blend. In fact, it is the linchpin of the modern craft cocktail movement that is sweeping bars and restaurants in recent years. This movement, which sees bartenders as a confluence of chef, scientist and apothecary, combines cutting-edge techniques of the kitchen with the scientific precision of the laboratory. A Cocktail Smoker kit would definitely help you make your cocktail at your convenience.

This precise science extends to all aspects of cocktail creation. Take, for example, a cocktail garnish like a singed rosemary sprig, used to impart a bit of smoke to the drink. Savage describes the process of preparing this garnish, which involves securing the rosemary on a non-flammable surface and lighting it so that it releases just a thin puff of smoke to permeate the drink. It is a meticulously crafted process that requires attention to detail, from the way the bartender moves behind the bar—”graceful, not erratic, no slamming”—to the fridge-temperature garnishes used instead of warm olives, which can heat martinis.

The exact mixture of tiny particles, water vapor and gases in the smoke also makes a difference. Smoke from logs, pellets, gas, or electricity produces noticeably different flavor profiles that can range from elegant vanilla and brown spice notes to coarse bitter or ash tray taint. The result is a complex cocktail of chemicals that can make or break a drink.


bartender holding a cocktail - Understanding Cocktail Alchemy

Air is essential for cocktails that incorporate egg whites – or the vegan option of aquafaba – cream, creamed liqueurs, fruit juices and heavy syrups. It is also important for combining the other ingredients in a drink and introducing their flavours. The bartender uses a shaker to combine and stir the liquids, but this would not be possible without integrating air into the mixture as well. This is achieved by bringing the shaker away from and closer to the body repeatedly, which causes the contents inside to be whipped up, which also agitates the mixture.

Whether it is a smoky Old Fashioned or a refreshing Smoky Summer Sour, air is the element that can make a cocktail truly stand out from the crowd. It is a magical, elemental ingredient that carries a wide range of aromatic qualities from its source. For example, wood smoke contains carbon monoxide – an incompletely burned fuel, which can add subtle flavours of caramel or bread. It also produces phenolic compounds that can provide notes of nutmeg or bitterness.

The exact mixture of combustion byproducts that is produced by each different type of smoker is what makes each type of smoke noticeable in its own right. Cookers that use logs, coal, gas, pellets and electricity produce a different combination of gases that creates the taste of the smoke they impart.

Modern-day alchemists, a mixology version of the medieval monks, herbalists and pharmacists, are dusting off ancient, forgotten recipes and turning them into seductive elixirs for today’s thirsty consumers. They view their bars as extensions of the kitchen and the apothecary, incorporating cutting edge techniques from both.


When smoke enters the atmosphere, it carries a cocktail of tiny particles, water vapor and gases. The precise mix of those chemicals is what gives smoke such distinctive flavor — whether it lends a subtle vanilla note to an iced-toddy or coarse bitter to an ash tray martini. The chemistry of the smoke can vary dramatically depending on what’s burning. Cookers that use wood, gas, pellets or electricity each produce a noticeably different blend of combustion byproducts that make up the smoke.

The airborne brew also contains microbes. Scientists have found that smoke from forest fires can carry viruses, bacteria and fungi that affect human and plant health. Their sampling of smoke plumes from different fires often reveals multiple pathogens and interesting species that alter soil chemistry in ways that support plant growth, communication, defense and reproduction.

Plumes of smoke from wildfires can absorb or reflect sunlight, affecting the planet’s temperature. The darkest smoke can warm the Earth, while lighter plumes can cool it. Researchers are working to understand the complex physics and chemistry of smoke particles as they move through the air and interact with clouds and the surrounding atmosphere.



The spirit is an intangible force that can affect matter, but it cannot be detected with physical instruments. It may be a metaphysical term for an incorporeal energy force that permeates all living things, but it can also refer to alcohol, which has the power to intoxicate and change our behavior. It can also mean cocktail syrups, which are flavored but not necessarily intoxicating and can add colors to cocktails and can be considered a kind of spirit (along with liqueurs, bitters and other flavorings).

Smoke is a complex mixture of gases and small particles that can produce a wide range of flavors. Smoke that comes from logs, coal, gas, pellets or electricity produces different flavors because each type of burner creates a unique combination of combustion byproducts. Different types of wood also produce different flavors because they each contain a unique blend of lignans, resins and polyphenols.

The exact composition of smoke can alter its color as well. Pale blue smoke particles are the smallest and scatter all wavelengths of light equally, while gray and black smoke have larger particles that absorb some wavelengths, producing dark brown and even tar-like hues. The amount of time meat is exposed to smoke can also make it appear darker or lighter in color, and the intensity of the smoke’s effect on the color can vary based on how much fat or connective tissue is in the meat.

Humans have never succeeded in turning lead into gold, but we can turn all kinds of materials into alcoholic spirits and create tasty cocktails in the process. Like alchemy, cocktails are about transmutation – taking the rough and raw and rendering it precious. It’s almost like magic.