There’s just something so mesmerizing about fire, you can just stare into it and get lost. It probably dates back to the hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors spent sitting around a crackling fire each night. To them fire meant warmth, fire meant survival, it was literally the difference between life and death. Stray too far from the glow of the flame, and man becomes prey, to predator and the elements. Somewhere between the 1600’s and 1800’s, mankind came to the reasonable conclusion that fire was good, alcohol was good, and mixing fire with alcohol just made sense, for synergy’s sake. Since then lighting cocktails on fire has been a tradition, the perfect way to say “Hey everybody check out this awesome drink!” without actually having to stand on top of the bar and yell such a thing. Almost any high-proof alcohol can be set on fire, my first memory of mixing fire and alcohol were trying to breathe fire with Bacardi 151 back when I was in college, an endeavor that ended in minor damage to myself and a dining room table.
Which leads to a great note on safety. Simply put, you are applying fire to a pool of highly flammable propellant. Have all the precautions you need ready like fire extinguishers, and wipe down your surface. Spilled alcohol on the table can easily catch fire, much like my fire breathing attempts above. I would also recommend investing in a barbecue lighter, to keep your fingers out of the danger zone. Finally, if the drink has been burning, than the glass is going to be how. If you’re doing some kind of shot, or any drink that involves touching the cup, be sure you’ve blown out the fire and given the glass time to cool.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the mandatory safety operations, let’s talk drinks! The truth is you can pretty much set anything on fire, even something blended. To pull this off, you simply create a float of high proof alcohol in the top of the glass. One of my favorite “fire and ice” combinations is taking a Daiquiri or Miami Vice, and floating some Bacardi 151 on top. Whip out the barbecue light and torch it for an impressive refreshment. I also highly recommend that you add sugar to the rim of the glass on any sweet type of drink. The fire will create an amazing caramelized coating around the rim. Amazingly delicious, and amazingly difficult to clean off your glass, be warned.
Perhaps my favorite use of fire and alcohol comes from the German tradition of Feuerzangenbowle. This is a large social drink in which a large typically around 7 inch long cone of sugar is soaked in high proof rum. It is then placed on a grate over a bowl of mulled wine and burnt. As the sugar cone burns, it slowly drips the caramelly, boozy rum goo into the wine. Once the cone is finished burning, everyone comes up and has a ladle of the mulled wine. It is a fantastic social event that brings people together, and you typically get to sit and watch this giant cone of sugar turn into a cocktail for twenty minutes in front of your very eyes.
When you really want to make an impression, light something on fire. Cocktails are ultimately about stimulating your senses. Your sight through the presentation, your smell through the aroma, and of course your taste. Igniting a cocktail lets you add the feeling of warmth and the glow of a flame and that heightens the experience. Whether it dates back to our primal ancestor’s use of fire as a provider of protection, or just because it looks way cool to present someone with a burning drink, people will remember the glow of the fire, as they have for thousands of years.