Flaming uses the oils of a fresh citrus fruit - most commonly an orange - to produce a pyrotechnic display across the top of a cocktail. It is a flamboyant bartending technique that is uncommonly used yet bestows much more than just theatrics on a drink. Why do we flame a drink, which ones can we flame and how do we flame, are all questions that are answered in here!
It is worth noting that the word flaming is often associated with a drink that is set on fire; like a flaming shot. In bartender terminology we don’t say we’re flaming a shot - and neither does the general public really - however you will have patrons order shots flaming, and this is synonymous with lit on fire and does not mean the technique we’re talking about here. The technique of flaming with a citrus peel is reserved for cocktails.
Although the theatrics of flaming are widely known, the real reason is not to “wow” and draw attention to the cocktail just created; although it certainly does. Often we’ll break or twist the peel of a citrus fruit over the top of a finished drink in order to express the oils and add their aromas to the drink as a final garnish. Putting these oils to a flame heats them, caramelising them, and the use of fire adds a smoky tinge to the aromas of the cocktail. Research suggests that smell equate to 70-80% of the flavours we taste, therefore the changes produced through flaming the oils can dramatically alter the perception of the drink with which you garnish it.
Despite its complex appearance, flaming is an easy skill to master. There are two things you’ll need, besides your cocktail, and these are your chosen citrus and a wooden match; with the box handy to strike said match. As mentioned before an orange peel is the most commonly used citrus peel but all citrus can be used and the aromas, flavours, of the oils will be different for each. Here’s how to flame a drink:
Cut a circle of peel from your citrus fruit, about an inch in diameter. Unlike when cutting twists, you’ll want this to contain a small amount of pith.
Take your match and light it. Hold it above the rim of your cocktail.
Take the citrus peel and hold it close to the flame for 5 seconds, pointing across the top of the cocktail; make sure you don’t burn your fingers!
With the peel still close to the flame, and pointing across the top of your drink, sharply squeeze the citrus peel to express the oils through the flame and across the top of the drink.
Extinguish the match and dispose of it and the citrus peel.
Matches are much preferred to lighters, not just for the extra theatrical or old-school element, but because the fluid used in lighters taints the oils with a displeasing flavour. This is highly worth knowing as it can ruin your perfectly crafted and flamed cocktail.
Cocktails which you may want to consider flaming are cosmopolitans, negronis, sazeracs, martinis, rusty nails, and other spirit based drinks. That is not to say that it is reserved for these; there are many a cocktail - of a wide variety - that have been produced in craft cocktail bars which call for flaming to add a different flavour and maybe, just maybe, some theatre to the cocktail.