“Leaded or unleaded?” asked the bartender at a grill shack in the Bahamas. Did I want my Sky Juice (a cinnamon-and-nutmeg-scented punch made with coconut water and evaporated milk) with gin or without it?
Of course, I chose the leaded version—fortified with a spirit that recalls the centuries-long British presence in the Bahamas. The island is also famous for distilling rum, as do, of course, most countries in the Caribbean.
The concoction also helps answer one of the most frequent questions I’m asked: What do I drink with barbecue?
Well, my first principle of pairing cocktails with grilled food is to choose a spirit made and favored by the locals.
So, with lechon asado, that garlic-scented, spit-roasted pig so popular in Puerto Rico, I invariably blend up a batch of Piña Coladas (created, so the story goes, by a San Juan bartender at the Caribe Hilton in the ’50s). Or with poulet boucane, Guadaloupe’s chicken smoke-roasted over sugar cane, I enjoy Petit Punch, an indolent cocktail made with white or dark French West Indian rum, fresh lime juice and a sugar cube or simple syrup.
Brazil’s picanha, spit-roasted fat-cap sirloin carved off the skewer right onto your plate at a churrascaria (Brazilian steak house), demands a Caipirinha, fresh limes muddled with sugar and fortified with the potent cane spirit cachaça.
In Peru, I nibble anticuchos (chili paste–slathered, charcoal-grilled beef-heart kebabs) with—what else?—Pisco Sours.
Even staunchly Muslim countries—hotbeds of grilling ecstasy—have their requisite drinks for a barbecue, like the dugh (yogurt, mint and rose petal mixed with sparkling water to a refreshing froth), traditionally served with Iran’s legendary kubideh (ground beef kebabs). Afghans serve a similar beverage—doh—which you can order sweet or salted. In Muslim neighborhoods in Singapore you might sip a Pepto-Bismol–colored combination of rosewater, grenadine and sweetened condensed milk known as bandung.
But there is a second—and, to my mind, more interesting—approach to pairing cocktails and barbecue, and that is to grill or smoke the actual drink.
Last year on the set of my PBS TV show, Project Smoke, we dipped cut lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits in sugar and grilled them over a screaming hot fire. The sweet smoky caramelized fruit went into a punch bowl with brown sugar, brandy and charred cinnamon sticks. We then added ice-cold prosecco and Grilled Sangria was born. (For a red version, use Italy’s sparkling red wine, lambrusco.)
But smoke-flavored cocktails have a long history and are traditionally made with a smoky spirit, like an Islay single malt Scotch or a Mexican mezcal. To make the former, distillers bake the malted barley in mammoth kilns fueled by peat fires. To make mezcal, the heart of the agave is traditionally slow roasted in pits full of hot rocks prior to mashing and distilling. The result: a tequila-like spirit that smells like your clothes after an evening sitting around a campfire.
To harness the unique smoky flavor of these spirits, try making a Blood and Sand—a potent combination of Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and the sweet Danish liqueur Cherry Heering. The drink was concocted in the 1920s and named in honor of a bullfighting movie starring heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.
Another good choice is the Mezcalini—a mash-up of a Margarita and a Mojito served at the Casa Oaxaca in, you guessed it, Oaxaca, Mexico. Muddle fresh mint and cucumber with triple sec and mezcal and you’ve got one of the most refreshing summer cocktails imaginable.
These days, there is an easy way to smoke any cocktail no matter what liquor it’s made with: Use a handheld smoker like the one from Aladin or a Smoking Gun model. (Think of these smokers as bongs that expel hickory smoke instead of Colorado’s quasi-official state plant.) All you have to do is cover your shaker or glass with plastic wrap and insert the smoker hose. Fill the vessel with smoke. Let it stand for three to four minutes and then stir. Depending upon how smoky you like your drinks, you may need to do it again.
No matter which cocktail you decide to make, I hope you have a great Labor Day!
Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue Bible cookbook series and hosts Project Smoke and Primal Grill on PBS. His latest book is the New York Times bestseller Project Smoke. For more recipes and inspiration, visit his site.