Smoke and Velvet

Another guest post from Sharon’s husband, Anthony, our family’s budding mixologist.

Testing cocktails is…hard. I know what you’re thinking: Testing cocktails is fun! You get to experiment with flavors—and get a little (or a lot) tipsy in the process!

While both of those things are true, starting a cocktail from scratch is no simple endeavor. To begin with, you need to choose some basic ingredients that you think would go together, using perhaps one atypical thing. You have to balance all the disparate ingredients so they get along, rather than tripping over each other trying to be first. It’s amazing how even a quarter ounce of one thing—lemon juice, simple syrup, a little vermouth—can totally transform the beverage, for better or worse.

Unlike testing food, you have a limit with your tasting abilities. You can only try so many different variations before every drink starts to, uh, taste really great! And because you’re working with expensive ingredients, you don’t want to throw the imperfect batches down the drain (or at least I can’t). So, you have to be very careful about how many versions you make—and try—before attaining perfection.

In an attempt to conquer some of these challenges, Sharon and I have found one way to improve the cocktail testing process: invite trusted tasters into the room—and make sure they don’t have to drive home! In November, when I set about trying to create some wintry libations, including Sunlight on Snow, we invited over two good friends who love cocktails about as much as we do. We talked and laughed, made drink after drink, and encouraged them to be very honest about each glass they were handed. The end result was a great night and two special new drinks.

This final version, which we named Smoke and Velvet, was born out of my desire to capture some of winter’s contrasts: those warm and smooth, yet dark and biting experiences you have when driving around your neighborhood looking at lights, when commuting to work as the wind whips around the buildings, when sitting by a roaring fire, cold from the room yet hot from the blaze. I began with a typical Italian after-dinner combination: coffee and anise. To capture those flavors and kick it up a notch, I turned them into a syrup and combined it with smoky Scotch, bracing rye, and a touch of herbal yet sweet Benedictine, finished with a lemon peel. It took me a few versions to get here, but I’m really satisfied with the ‘destination’ this drink conjures up–an evening next to the fire with some friends in wintry attire.

I hope you’ll enjoy this cocktail—and more so, that you’ll try to create your own perfect winter drink. Just remember, as you begin this process, that not all your friends can be your cocktail testers! Start thinking about those discerning characters you have around: someone who is honest, willing to be critical, and open to whatever liquors and flavors you want to play with. And (this could be the most important) you have to be comfortable enough with them to serve real tests, the less-than-perfect, potentially-awful concoctions. Save the final, perfect recipes for everyone else.

However, you may want to be careful who you tell about your new-found talents. You may wind up with more requests for new cocktail creations than you think!

Smoke and Velvet
Serves: 1
  • 1 oz. scotch
  • ½ oz. rye whiskey
  • ¼ oz. Benedictine
  • 2 teaspoon coffee-anise syrup, see below
  • Lemon peel, for garnish
Coffee-Anise Syrup (Makes two cups)
  • 2 cups strong coffee
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon anise seeds
  1. For the Coffee-Anise Syrup: Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the ingredients steep for at least 10 minutes or up to an hour. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve, and store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to three months.
  2. For the cocktail: Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add a small handful of ice and shake vigorously. Strain the drink into a martini or coupe glass and garnish with a lemon peel.


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  1. says

    Ooh, I love this line, “sitting by a roaring fire, cold from the room yet hot from the blaze.”
    And I love your cocktail. Having tasted Smoke and Velvet, I think you named it well.
    Am looking forward to enjoying it again over the holidays and into the deep winter.

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