Cocktail 101: How to Flame an Orange Twist

Photograph: Michael Dietsch

The flamed orange twist ranks among the most spectacular techniques in a bartender's bag of tricks. At a crowded bar, a quick burst of flame always turns heads and sparks conversation, but it's no less an exhibition at home, when you're serving a cocktail to a guest.

Today, I conclude my a-peel-ing miniseries on citrus-twist garnishes by showing you how.

The principle behind a flamed twist is the same as any twist, really. You're squeezing oil out of the peel and onto the surface of the cocktail. In this case, though, you're squeezing it through a flame, which lightly caramelizes the oil and subtly enhances its flavor.

Anyway, that's what the cocktail books tell you. I can't say I've ever noticed much of a flavor difference between a twisted peel and a flamed one, but it certainly makes your drinking rituals a little more showy. And honestly, who doesn't love a little showmanship at cocktail hour? You work your tail feathers off; you deserve it.

Any drink that calls for a twist can be livened up a little with a flamed peel, but as a general rule, I like to reserve the spectacle for drinks that have bigger flavors. So I wouldn't generally flame a peel over a crisp martini, for example, but a Oaxaca Old Fashioned? A Sidecar? Now you're talking.

Photographs: Jennifer Hess

What you'll need:

  • One fresh piece of citrus fruit, preferably organic. (Previous warnings about pesticides and citrus wax still stand.) I find that oranges and lemons generally have oilier peels than most other citrus. Most importantly, freshness really matters here. As citrus ages, its skin dries out. The fresher your fruit, the brighter the flame.
  • Sharp paring knife.
  • Wooden matches or cigarette lighter. (Although face it: matches look a lot classier in front of guests than a cheap Bic from the gas station.)

What you'll do:

  1. Cut a round "coin" of orange peel, at least an inch in diameter. This time, don't worry too much about getting some of the pith. A thicker piece of peel is easier to squeeze over a lit match.
  2. Light a match; hold the lit match several inches above the cocktail.
  3. Hold the orange peel colored side down, about two inches above the lit match. (If you wind up with match soot on the peel, you held the peel too close to the flame.) I prefer to wave the peel slowly over the match for a couple of seconds, to help warm the oil so it lights more easily, but this isn't always necessary.
  4. Twist and squeeze the peel over the lit match. I like to snap my forefinger and thumb together pretty sharply and strongly to press out a lot of oil quickly.
  5. Rub the peel around the rim of the glass. Drop the twist into the drink or discard.

Be patient. The first few times you do this, it might not work very well, but keep practicing, be sure to use fresh oranges, and you'll eventually get it down.