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Feb 12, 2013 12:41 PM

To Flame or Not To Flame the Orange Twist

Recently got Dale DeGroff's Craft of the Cocktail, where he repeatedly advocates flaming the orange peel. They also did this a lot at Sidebar in Silver Spring, the bar that in many ways got me into cocktails. However, Robert Hess never calls for it. It never comes up in The Joy of Mixology. I don't think it's ever called for in the PDT book, or Wondrich's Imbibe.

So, does it really make a difference? Though certainly showy, in theory shouldn't it actually decrease the amount of oils expressed into the drink (since they're getting burned away), and thus lessen the effect of the orange twist in a drink?

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  1. Flaming the peel makes a difference. It is a change in the flavor profile. The smoky orange flavor/aroma is much more noticeable than a regular twist. I now carefully toast the peel a bit before flaming to increase the burnt oils, and if the toasted flamed peel is used as the garnish, the smoky flavor is even more pronounced.

    Flaming definitely is one of Dale's trademarks. It's a nice bit of flash to attract attention, both visually and with the aroma; increase sales, and add a slightly different flavor component.

    By the way, I've seen flamed orange peel at PDT numerous times, and in the PDT book (pg. 28) Jim mentions keeping matches and striker on the bar for flaming twists and flaming as a technique is mentioned on pg. 34. Also it is mentioned in several cocktails, the Bizet pg. 66 and the Lacrimosa pg. 157 (both created by David Slape a former PDT bartender), the Little Bit Country on pg. 167, the Silk Road pg. 238,the Smoky Grove pg. 243, and the There Will Be Blood pg. 250.

    By the way, the Smoky Grove cocktail was created for me by Jonathan "The Cocktail Guru" Pogash at Bookmarks bar in the Library Hotel. Jim Meehan read my article about it, tried it, and liked it enough to put it into the book and made it a crew drink for after hours at PDT. Of course he changed it a bit, switching in Compass Box Peat Monster for the original Laphroig, and cutting back the two dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters to one each. I liked the original, it was more complex.


    14 Replies
    1. re: JMF

      I sometimes get a bit of an unpleasant aroma -- maybe gasoline? -- when I have a drink with a flamed peel. Anyone else find this to be the case?

      I noticed this most recently when a bartender used a match to flame the peel. I wonder if some of the sulfur (or whatever match heads are made of these days) somehow transferred into or reacted with the oils?

      1. re: davis_sq_pro

        Yes, if the match touches the peel, the sulphur combines with the oils and form that nasty taste and aroma. As long as the match doesn't touch the peel, all is fine.

        1. re: JMF

          So perhaps best practice is to use a lighter instead? Not as romantic as striking a match, but ... the bartender in question is considered to be one of the top guys in Boston. If he's screwing it up on occasion then so are lots of others.

          1. re: davis_sq_pro

            I don't think it works with a lighter, I don't know why, I just know I've been told this. Also, it can produce a pretty big puff of flame, and in general, you don't want that around a lighter.

            My guess is that they type of matches makes a subtle difference as well. I dunno, at home it just doesn't seem worth the effort.

            1. re: davis_sq_pro

              Never a lighter -- at least not a refillable one that uses lighter fluid . . .

              1. re: zin1953

                You mean like a Zippo? I can see how that would cause some issues. But butane should be fine..?

                1. re: davis_sq_pro

                  I don't smoke and haven't for over a decade, but the past four months I carry a Bic butane lighter at all times... specifically for flaming orange peel.

            2. re: JMF

              It's not whether the match touches the peel as much as whether the drink maker waits for the match head to burn off completely (the part that has the sulphur that chemically allows the match to light). Although as I said in my longer comment, that flavor is magnified when the sooty peel is dropped in (if the flame was under or below the peel for any length of time, not just igniting the oils that were passing through).


          2. re: JMF

            I wonder if some drinks really need it. Dale seems to call for it in darn near any drink with an orange twist. What if a drink just doesn't need that extra smoky component?

            Also, thanks for heads-up about the PDT book. Despite owning the book for a while, I don't use it very often because so many of the drinks are out of my price range, in terms of more obscure (an not inexpensive) liqueurs, infusions that would require purchases just to infuse, or other oddball ingredients. That said, he doesn't seem as obsessed with constantly flaming the peel as DeGroff does. Though I don't have any Carpano, I'll try the Smoky Grove tonight with Laphroiag and Dolin.

            As far as the unpleasant gas/sulfur aroma, it was probably because the bartender didn't know to let the match burn for a few seconds away from the peel first. The initial burst of the fuel needs to go out and the wood catch before the process of flaming the orange should begin, otherwise, you're catching sulfur smoke on the peel.

            1. re: JMF

              I've flamed a lot of drinks, and never noticed soot! I am careful not to touch the match to the peel. I don't detect any sort of smokey flavor, I think because before the flame I don't "cook" the peel, just get it kind of warm, get it sweating a bit. Maybe I detect a slight caramelized element, but very slight. I will admit I do like doing it more for fun than for any increase in drinkability.

              1. re: Alcachofa

                Getting back to this many months later. You have to make sure you "aim" the flame / oils at the drink. Just flaming it over the drink doesn't means that the oils will land in the drink. If done right it's a big hit of oils and can make a good drink into an awesome one. Or... overpower a more subtle drink. Also the wiping of the rim with the peel is important too. I think it really amps up a Cosmopolitan. (I changed up the recipe for my cosmo's on the bars I work with menus to amp up the flavor to begin with.) I love it with stuirred whiskey drinks. Flamed orange peel is used in just about every one I make unless some other flavor predominates and I go in a different direction with the garnish.

                1. re: JMF

                  I have done it over an Old Fashioned, but now that you mention "stirred whiskey drinks", I'm wondering why I've never done it over a Manhattan! Next time...

                  How did you change up the Cosmo?

                  1. re: Alcachofa

                    It's great with a Manhattan and its variations.

                    With the Cosmo I just changed the proportions slightly.

                    Dale DeGroff Cosmopolitan
                    1-1/2 oz. Skyy or Absolut Citron vodka
                    1/2 oz. Cointreau
                    1/4 oz. lime juice
                    1 oz. cranberry juice cocktail

                    Shake on ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with flamed orange peel.

                    Cosmopolitan JMF Re-do
                    1-1/2 oz. Skyy or Absolut Citron vodka
                    3/4 oz. Cointreau
                    3/4 oz. lime juice
                    1 oz. cranberry juice cocktail

                    Shake on ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with flamed orange peel.

                    1. re: JMF

                      Our soda gun cranberry juice is so dark that these sorts of recipes make the Cosmo just appear wrong (red instead of an attractive pink).

                      The one I go with:
                      2 oz Vodka (we don't have citron)
                      1 oz Triple Sec
                      1/2 oz Lime Juice
                      1/2 oz Cranberry cocktail

                      Might try it with 3/4 oz lime and 1/4 oz cranberry to get it to be pinker and see how it tastes.

            2. I do agree that flaming peels is impressive stage magic.

              However, when I have used a cigarette lighter to hit only the oils, a small group test could not tell that there was a difference between the regular twist and the flamed one.

              If the peel is then discarded, there is less effect.

              Yes, running the match flame over the peel changes things. You end up with a burnt flavor and sometimes a nasty sulphorous one when the peel is dropped in. Even more distasteful -- whether it is match or lighter -- is the black ring of soot I have been served as it comes off the peel and into the drink.

              Honestly, it is a technique that I would wish go away. I will gladly accept a drink that has a flamed garnish whereas my wife will specifically ask that the garnish not get flamed.


              17 Replies
              1. re: yarm

                What type of cigarette lighter?

                1. re: zin1953

                  When used, I've always seen cheap butane lightes, but the correct protocol, usually followed by places that flame the peel, is for woden matches.

                  1. re: The Big Crunch

                    Yes, but the "correct" protocol shouldn't have a litany of negative results like the ring of soot, sulphur added to the drink, etc.

                    There is no correct protocol here. People can't even agree what the correct protocol on how to garnish a Sazerac (drop the peel or don't) without making things into a religious fight. It's a flare bartending trick from the years preceding the craft cocktail movement after all. It's always cited to DeGroff, but that is perhaps the person who brought over this aspect of showmanship from bars making crappy drinks to bars making drinks without sour mix.

                    1. re: yarm

                      I've read about flaming as early as 1950 for orange peel in cocktails and Lillet. Dale said he first saw it done with lemon peel over espresso at Mama Leone's.

                      1. re: yarm

                        I'm with Fred on the sulfur. I never use a match. Remember lighting a match in the bathroom to, uh, disguise the ambient aroma? Why you'd want that anywhere near your drink, I don't know. A match has a pretty strong smell right down to the point where you can't hold it. I'd say butane is the way to go.

                        I don't flame often (ba-ding set that one up), but I use a small butane kitchen torch or a cigar lighter. My second choice would be to break the head off a long wooden match, light it on the stove, then use that. I believe that some cigar smokers use this technique to avoid the sulfur.

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                        1. re: EvergreenDan

                          Many serious cigar smokers use a candle to light a cedar splint (strips from the cedar lining of cigar boxes usually), then use that to light the cigar. Or else a high intensity butane lighter.

                          1. re: EvergreenDan

                            (Presented in the "Better Late Than Never" Department)

                            Dan, the "bathroom" technique is far more effective if the match is blown out *immediately* upon the sulfur flare ending, and letting the wooden match's smoke fill the room.

                            As JMF "correctly" states, the classic way to light a cigar is with a cedar splint. That said, there is nothing wrong -- nor sulfurous -- with using a wooden match IF . . . you light the match well away from the cigar, wait for the sulfur head to finish its flare, and burn down the matchstick, say, 25-33% before bringing it towards the cigar. It is done all the time, as is a butane lighter.

                            The same technique can be used when flaming an orange peel (wait for the match to burn off all the sulfur and work down the matchstick), BUT . . . in a bar, that takes too much time-per-drink. All bartenders I can think of use butane.

                            And . . . there is no smoke coming off the now-extinguished matchstick! ;^)

                    2. re: yarm

                      Fred, I did a test with Bic lighter flamed orange peel as you describe, with the bartenders I have been training in the two bars I am currently working with, and they could easily say which drink was flamed and which wasn't. I think it is all about how much of the oils make it onto the drink and rim.

                      Some drinks benefit from flaming, some do not. It depends upon the cocktail.

                      1. re: JMF

                        Some of you are on crack ;) or at least bourbon. If any of you would like to do a blind taste test and prove your assertion that a simple flash appreciably changes the nose or flavor of a drink, please post the results (how many out of 10 did you get correct?). It's showy, sexy salesmanship and craftsmanship.

                        1. re: ButchJ

                          I am not a professional bartender, though I am in the *wine* trade. I can tell which is flamed, and which isn't, in a Lillet Blanc aperitif. Those have been served blind to me many times over the decades, and it's pretty easy.

                          I have *not* tried it, however, with any type of cocktail.

                          But, Butch, a question: how is "chang[ing] the nose or flavor of a drink" and "sexy salesmanship and craftsmanship" mutually exclusive?

                          1. re: ButchJ

                            I've done the taste tests. Didn't you read that?

                            All of us were right, every time.

                            1. re: JMF

                              I don't need a blind taste test. The first time I saw it done I was excited to try the drink and disappointed the moment it got near my nose. Several other attempts yielded the same exact result. I am quite certain I could tell them apart blind, with a massive head cold.

                              I don't agree with you that "some drinks benefit from flaming, some do not." I don't think any drink should be flamed, ever, unless you're a particular fan of the odor of petrol.

                              1. re: davis_sq_pro

                                Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

                                No one should use a liquid/zippo style lighter to flame an orange peel. So there should be no petrol odor.

                                A properly flamed orange peel, using preferably a butane lighter, or else a wooden match that has had the sulphur burn off, smells like charred orange oil. Most people find that pleasant.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    ...and its impressive to some women.

                                    1. re: TroyTempest

                                      it's impressive to some men too...

                          2. Both are fine, depending upon your taste.

                            I prefer it as raw peel, which delivers more orange-citrus notes.

                            I have had it flamed twice, but never with a match. A small kitchen torch was used, quickly, with a theatrical flair, with the thick canelle-cut peel left on a plate for a minute or so.

                            Up to that time I had been using a small Swiss pocket knife to cut lemon or lime twists. Seeing this easier demonstration, I found and added the canelle tool to my Rösle collection after that, but only for G&T, and recipes using a thicker twist of peel.

                            There is another zesting tool that both Rösle and WMF offer with a Canelle cutter, but the twists produced are very small, and would probably evaporate under flame.

                            By the way, all credit to the barkeeper years ago at Hotel Bellavista, Menaggio, Lago Di Como. I'll have to pass on to them someday the well-deserved term " stage magic. "

                            As JMH points out above there is a sweet-smokiness that develops with the orange oil being burnt. Soot or Sulphur ? None that I recall. Most enjoyable.

                            1. A clarification or two spotted by my wife on the previous post:

                              The twist of orange peel is cut long and wide, twisted into a curl, and then held with a stainless steel pair of long garnishing tweezers, while it was flamed.

                              During the flame process, there are little sparkles that occur as the orange oil heats up. It took about 30 seconds per peel.

                              We enjoyed this in a glass of Zwack / Unicum liqueur, by the way. Magical in the evening, before or after dinner.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: SWISSAIRE

                                That sounds like a different style of flaming than what Dale or I do.