At the Rathskeller, some of the most popular drinks require a blowtorch
It's customary, albeit now dated in the age of the smoking ban, for a bartender to carry a lighter. Ivan Harmon, bar manager at the Rathskeller, carries a blowtorch. Granted, it's small and it's a little broken, so he also has to carry a lighter to kick-start it. But still, a blowtorch.
Smoked whisky is the thing at the basement level bar off Michigan Street — and it's a higher maintenance trick than, say, mulling an orange for the house favorite, a standard old fashioned.
Harmon is smoking a mix of drinks, ranging from a standard shot of the house whiskey to a highly memorable old fashioned made with mezcal and chocolate bitters.
According to Food & Wine, the smoky cocktail started in the mid-2000s with Eben Freeman, a mixologist who wanted in on the smoked-whatever (meats, ice cream, bananas) scene. His invention: The Waylon, a smoked Coke with bourbon. Frank Bruni, New York Times restaurant critic-turned-op ed columnist, noted the trend in the magazine in 2012 and said: "Smoke might surprise you, but in measured doses, it makes sense. It brings the outdoors indoors. Reframes familiar ingredients. And gives them fresh heat."
Harmon said he initiated the infused drinks about a year ago by commandeering a hand-smoker that was already on site. He believes he is the only one in town doing it.
During a recent off-hours visit to the sub-basement of Duluth's old city hall, Harmon mixed up a smoky take on an old fashioned: he mulled an orange, added bitters, demerara syrup and Woodford Reserve whiskey — specially made in Kentucky for Fitger's Brewhouse and its affiliated locations.
He lit the apple wood chips with his torch and dropped the hose into the decanter with the drink. There was an immediate foggy effect — both in the decanter and surrounding Harmon.
This was not the first time Harmon, dressed in a black dress shirt, has been told he looks like a magician.
The smell was deep and woody. Northern Minnesota in a decanter.
After about 2 minutes of smoking and swirling, he poured the drink over a single square of ice. A common hot-take: "Tastes like a campfire," Harmon reported.
The smoky taste is full and dominant. And it lingers.
The Rathskeller's cocktail menu includes smoked black Manhattans and old fashioneds — including the mezcal-chocolate variation.
Though it isn't on the menu, Harmon has experimented with smoking Vikre's Boreal cedar gin to make an aviation — a cocktail known for its sky and cloud hues that also includes lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, simple syrup and creme de violette.
The smoking is more than a taste enhancer; it's a show. It doesn't take long for Harmon to draw an audience, he said, followed by more and more orders. Once someone tries a smoked version, they usually stick with it. For this reason, it's better served on a weekday than at peak bar hours on the weekend. It's no sweat for Harmon.
"I like smoking flavors," Harmon said. "The skill involved, the art. It becomes more than a cocktail at some point."