In the beginning, there was fire. Then, booze. And then, inevitably, man mixed fire with booze. As to what prompted this inclination, Dave Arnold, author of Liquid Intelligence and the mad-scientist bartender who has gone so far as to invent an apparatus to heat drinks at New York’s Booker and Dax, puts it simply: “Fire is inherently awesome.”
It was there at the genesis of the tavern, when a tool in a bartender’s arsenal might have been a loggerhead or flip-dog—basically an iron poker heated up and dipped into drinks to make cold beverages hot. It was center stage in English parlors from the 16th to the 19th century in a questionable game called “Snapdragon,” where raisins were placed in a bowl of brandy that was then set alight; participants plucked the raisins out one by one and ate them. If you avoided the smell of burning flesh, you were a winner. And it’s long been used in a German Christmas Eve tradition—the flaming punch called Feuerzangenbowle—where a rum-soaked sugar loaf is suspended above wine, and set aflame. There’s even a film named after it.
But if you were to trace the ignited tipple to its most popular origins stateside, you would begin with “Professor” Jerry Thomas, who in 1862 published the first-ever bartender’s guide called the Bon Vivant’s Companion. In it, he described a drink called the Blue Blazer, a flammable mixture of high-proof Scotch and water. The magic comes when the drink is poured back and forth between two sturdy metal cups, giving the appearance of a stream of fire. The longer the pour, the more spectacular—and dangerous—the show.
But setting the drink on fire was more than just a party trick. “I think the reason for lighting the Blue Blazer was two-fold,” says drinks historian David Wondrich. “One, it was showmanship, and two, it would burn off the nastier, or more volatile compounds in a badly disturbed spirit.”
Dave Arnold’s tenure at the French Culinary Institute has led to a few revelations of his own. Unlike heating a drink on a stove, “when you immerse a flaming hot slug of metal [a.k.a., the iron poker] into the liquids, there’s a lot of liquid coming into very close contact with a super-heated surface, and you actually do get flavors, colors, aromas that you didn’t get before.”
The appeal of the lit cocktail was such that even Prohibition couldn’t quell the flame. In New Orleans, they used it to disguise their booze in a flaming coffee drink with brandy, citrus, and spices called The Café Brulot Diabolique, which you can still order tableside today at its birthplace, Antoine’s. In the 1950s its popularity was revived with Don the Beachcomber’s tiki trend, which ushered in the flaming volcano bowl, and the floating lime-shell garnish topping drinks like the flaming zombie.
But all good things can be taken too far. In 2010, bartender Albert Trummer—a man known to occasionally pour alcohol on his bar and set it aflame—was caught in a fire-department sting in New York and charged with two misdemeanors: reckless endangerment and criminal nuisance. And so today you’ll find the more restrained flame: a layer of ignited high-proof rum floating on top of a drink, perhaps, or a fired-up orange peel topping drinks like the Sidecar. There are also boozy and complicated chemistry experiments with the flame as a tool, like the Summer Fling, developed by Grand Army’s co-owner and head bartender, Damon Boelte. His drink is a cousin of the Southside, where a rinse of absinthe is lit on fire. Sugar is added and gets caramelized by the flame, resulting in absinthe rock candy.
And of course, in certain circles—particularly ones on or near college campuses—the flaming shot will never go out of fashion, like the New Orleans-invented Flaming Dr. Pepper, a mix of amaretto almond liqueur and 151, lit up and dunked in beer. To find one, just follow the freshmen with no eyebrows.
As for the future of the flaming cocktail, perhaps inspiration lies in the past, as Dave Arnold has already discovered with his re-designed flip-dog. (Booker and Dax has a rotating roster of hot drinks utilizing his modified pre-Prohibition tool.) Or maybe we’ll continue to see more of the chemistry experiments like Boelte’s Summer Fling. Boelte happens to be a Blue Blazer aficionado—and the proud owner of three sets of specialized metal cups for different Blue Blazer occasions—so when we asked him to fire us up some cocktails to photograph, he was more than happy to oblige.
Below, we zero in on the stories behind six infamous blazing drinks with the help of our cocktail cognoscenti: Wondrich, Arnold, and Boelte.
Gifs by Amy Chen.
“There’s no way I would ever let someone at my bar make a Blue Blazer,” says Dave Arnold. “You are literally throwing a flaming liquid through the air, and the further you pour said flaming liquid through the air, the cooler the drink looks.” But of course, the lit-up Scotch toddy was not invented primarily for its taste, but rather its showmanship. “The best time I got to make them was at the Conan O’Brien show,” says Wondrich. “Right off-screen they had a stagehand with a huge fire extinguisher. I wished I could have hired her for every other time I make Blue Blazers, because it makes it look really dangerous.”
“It has enough liquor to obliterate a good number of people and I’m a quick drinker, so my memory of them is hazy,” says Arnold, referring to the notorious tiki spin-off of the traditional Scorpion bowl. The “crater” in the middle of the bowl is filled with overproof rum, then lit on fire. “[The fire] was kind of contained. It wasn’t going to spill out and kill you,” he says. Don the Beachcomber’s original recipe from the 1970s favored grapefruit, rum, lime, and allspice.
Wondrich settles the controversy of what constitutes a flaming drink, saying, “If you float rum on top of your drink, that counts.” Bring on the flaming zombie, a variation of the classic zombie—also known as the skull-puncher—that was developed in 1934 by Don the Beachcomber and included grapefruit, lime juice, cinnamon, three types of rum, Angostura, Pernod, and grenadine. The sweet fruit juices mask the liquor, and the float of 151 practically dares adventurous bartenders to light it aflame—which they did, of course, always warning the imbiber to blow it out before actually drinking.
Flaming Dr. Pepper
“Have I had one? Maybe, I don’t know. I drink a lot of stupid shit when people trot it out for me during an evening out and about,” says Wondrich. Even if his memory is fuzzy, countless of others have ordered the drink in the “frat boy” genus, made with amaretto almond liqueur, 151, and beer, creating a flavor profile remarkably similar to a Dr. Pepper. It was invented by Dave Brinks, who is also a poet, at the Gold Mine Saloon in New Orleans.
“After the Blue Blazer, you see various, much more polite drinks,” says Wondrich. The Brandy Blazer was the product of Europe in the 1910s and the 1920s. “They would do it in a brandy snifter and just kind of lay it on its side and torch it. That’s fairly polite, and unlikely to burn the house down. It didn’t involve huge arcs of flaming fire.”
“Visually it’s cool, because people like watching it being made. But it’s also fucking delicious,” says Damon Boelte of his Summer Fling, a variation of a Southside where a rinse of absinthe is set on fire and the sugar is dashed, caramelizing to the wall of the glass and sparking up. Boelte has been making this cocktail for nine years.