Of all the cocktail tricks I've tried, this one might just be my favorite: the transforming cocktail. Last year I saw a cocktail demo by chef Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea and his head bar manager at the Aviary, Charles Joly. The Aviary prides itself on serving cocktails that push boundaries; one cocktail arrives in an ice sphere that you must crack open with a slingshot. As we arrived, we were handed a cocktail with a large dark pink sphere inside. No one was told what the drink was, but we all dutifully sipped while we waited for the demonstration to begin. Over the next few minutes, the ice sphere melted, and, as that occurred, the flavor of the drink started to take on another dimension. The center cube was made with watermelon purée, which transformed the drink as time went by. It was a wonderful concept that I still haven't seen much of yet.
You don't have to be behind a fancy bar to play with transforming cocktails. This drink starts as a light, fruity, tiki-inspired cocktail, evolving into a richer, heavier, and more savory beverage, just through the process of melting ice... Smoked ice to be exact.
As you sip, the flavor of smoke subtly appears—eventually, it becomes a major element. I've created this recipe specifically to highlight the transformation, but feel free to use the technique on other cocktails, too. Want to see how this works in a Manhattan? An Old Fashioned? Heck, I'd try some smoked ice cubes in a rum and Coke.
If you're wondering how complicated it is to create smoked ice, allow me to reassure you: it is simple. In my opinion, you're best off if you have a smoker, either electric or stovetop will work; it makes setup and execution much easier. But if that's not available, tinfoil and a roasting pan with a cover will also work.
The method I used for smoking my ice came from this article. It involves what may seem like a counterintuitive step: smoking ice cubes instead of water in liquid form. According to the author, smoke is attracted to cold objects more than warm ones, and is therefore more likely to settle on (and thus flavor) ice. My knowledge of particle physics isn't strong enough to evaluate whether this explanation is true, but I can attest that the process produces ice with a clear, pleasantly smoky flavor (just in case you're wondering how this works: the original ice cubes end up melting during the smoking process, and then have to be re-frozen into new cubes once smoked).
Wood chips from your grocery store—the kind used on your grill—provide flavor. My local grocer offered the options of applewood or mesquite. Applewood has a sweet and delicate flavor, while the mesquite is pretty pungent and powerful—giving you strongly flavored smoke. For this recipe, I used the mesquite to get a more powerful campfire taste. Another option that should be mentioned, though, are smoked herbs. Rosemary and sage are two that I have used regularly in cocktails to impart subtle smoke and great earthy flavors.