A Brief History of Flaming Cocktails

Illustration of various flaming cocktails
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Incendiary cocktails with eye-catching flames are always a draw, but as the Billy Joel song says, we didn’t start the fire. Throughout history, bartenders have found excuses to set drinks on fire to delightful effect.

But there are functional reasons to ignite a cocktail. To set high-proof spirits aflame helps burn off some of the alcohol and caramelizes sugars. The result can be a more palatable drink with nuanced vanilla or smoky tones.

The real reason to set a cocktail on fire, however? It looks really cool.

“It’s almost entirely theatrical,” says Adam Henry, co-owner and cocktail director of Pittsburgh tiki lounge Hidden Harbor. “It makes it feel more like an experience.”

Here’s a look at some fired-up cocktails and drink styles past and present.

Note: For those inclined to experiment with flammable drinks, safety first. Flames should always be extinguished before you attempt to consume a fiery cocktail.

Illustration of a Blue Blazer cocktail being poured
Blue Blazer / Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The Blue Blazer (1850s–1890s)

This legendary early flaming cocktail calls for a wine glass of whiskey mixed with boiling water and sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar. It’s set aflame and poured between two mugs. The dramatic arc of the blue flame is lengthened with each pour.

“The spectacle was the thing,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich in his book, Imbibe! “Although there were those who justified the flames necessary to ‘take the sting out’ of the raw Scotch whisky that was available at the time by consuming its more volatile components.”

The Blue Blazer first showed up in print in the 1850s. Its popularity grew in the 1890s, as bartenders made the drink using a wide range of spirits, particularly rum and brandy.

“By 1900, it was effectively dead,” Wondrich writes, viewed as little better than a stunt drink.

Café Brûlot being poured, flaming, down an orange peel
Café Brûlot / Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Café Brûlot (1800s)

The service of this boozy coffee drink is typically performed tableside. Brandy and orange liqueur are combined in a ladle, ignited and then sent on a fiery journey down a long, spiraled orange peel studded with cloves into a silver-plated Brûlot bowl below. Chicory coffee is poured over the top to douse the flames, then sugar and spices are added. The finished drink is then doled out into teacups.

Though rooted in New Orleans, there’s some dispute about precisely where and when the drink originated. Most credit Antoine’s Restaurant with its creation in the 1890s, when the city was a key port for coffee importation. Another colorful tale claims that pirate Jean Lafitte created the fiery drink at the turn of the 19th century. Supposedly, he would entertain a group with the showy drink. Meanwhile, his companions would pickpocket distracted onlookers.

Today, Arnaud’s, another old-guard New Orleans restaurant, is noted for its Café Brûlot, which has been on the menu since the 1940s.

Flaming Volcano Bowl tiki drink cocktail
Volcano Bowl / Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Volcano Bowls and other Flaming Tiki Drinks (1940s–1950s)

While there’s no single drink that stands out as the definitive tiki drink to set on fire, large-format volcano bowls and scorpion bowls often feature a fiery element. The tiki genre began in the 1930s. It grew in popularity during the 1950s, in large part due to over-the-top presentation that included flames dancing in the center of drinks.

Break out the Blowtorch: Smoke & Spice

In general, this feat is accomplished with 151, or overproof, rum poured into a hollowed-out lime half. The shell is floated in the center of a drink, after which the rum is ignited to create a blue flame.

“It is for good reason that 151-proof rum is not allowed aboard aircraft: If a bottle were to light, it would explode,” writes Shannon Mustipher in Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails.

Martin Cate, proprietor of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, recommends soaking small cubes of bread with an even higher-proof lemon extract and setting that aflame. This technique creates a taller, yellower flame. Others opt to ignite extract-soaked sugar cubes. Some go even bigger still: grating cinnamon over the flame for a brief yet impressive pyrotechnic display.

Illustration of shots of Flaming Dr Pepper being dropped into beer
Flaming Dr Pepper / Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Flaming Dr Pepper and other fiery shots (1970s–1980s)

The 1970s and 1980s in particular saw a trend for party shooters with cheeky names, often sweetened with liqueurs and a float of overproof alcohol that made them instantly flammable.

Of these, the Flaming Dr Pepper deserves special mention. Amaretto and overproof rum are layered in a shot glass and set ablaze. The shot is then dropped in a pint glass of beer to extinguish the flame. Some build it in the pint glass and then pour in beer for a safer alternative.

There’s some debate about whether the drink was created in Texas, where Dr Pepper was first formulated, or Louisiana. Either way, the Flaming Dr Pepper enjoys popularity in the southern U.S. and, notably, was the inspiration behind the fictional “Flaming Moe” cocktail on The Simpsons.

Illustration of flamed orange peel over cocktail in a coupe glass
Flamed orange peel / Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Flamed Orange Peels and other blazing garnishes (2000s–2010s)

Fast-forward to the cocktail revolution of the past decade. Bartenders have rediscovered classy ways to incorporate fire and its cousin, smoke, into high-end cocktails.

The flamed orange peel is perhaps the most genteel approach. An orange peel is flexed next to a flame. This sends a burst of orange oils through the fire to create an eye-catching spark and smoky, caramelized aroma.

Of course, others are more outrageous. Dave Arnold of Existing Conditions developed an electric “red-hot poker” that’s used to gleefully ignite all manner of drinks.

Originally, Arnold sought a quick, dramatic way to heat drinks, similar to the iron rods used to heat flips and other drinks in colonial taverns. But as he tested the pokers, some got so hot that they began to ignite drinks, a crowd-pleasing move that’s now a key part of the show. Once again, inspiration from history sets modern-day drinks ablaze.

Published on July 1, 2020
Topics: Cocktail History