More than ten years in the making, we are finally posting a cocktail we discovered during our first week in Portland. It was the vacation that inspired a cross-country move. We spent the week sampling everything this part of the country has to offer. We hiked in the Columbia Gorge and sipped wines of the Willamette Valley. We strolled scenic beaches and explored majestic peaks of the Cascade Mountains. We ate delicious meals by award-winning chefs and washed them down with world-class cocktails. By the time we were sipping this one we were convinced: It was time to move to Oregon.
The final restaurant we visited was Laurelhurst Market. The food was great and the drinks were outstanding. Evan Zimmerman managed the bar back then and would soon go on to build the cocktail programs at Woodsman Tavern and Ava Gene’s. We have shared a few of his creations over the years including the Hunting Vest, Saw Tooth, and Copita de Mezcal. But the recipe that takes us back to that first week in Portland is Smoke Signals.
Smoke Signals by Evan Zimmerman
2.25 oz Jack Daniels
.75 oz sherry
.75 oz pecan syrup
.25 oz lemon juice
Add to a shaker with ice and shake to chill. Strain over a large chunk of smoked ice in a rocks or old fashioned glass.
In case you missed it, that recipe says to serve this over a chunk of smoked ice. Who ever heard of such a thing? Yet, this is how absurdity can be craft cocktail genius if done properly, and Mr. Zimmerman seems to have a knack for that. It’s also the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, that convinced us that we needed to experience more of this town’s sometimes seductive unconventionality. After a week of discovery and a constant feast for the senses, we came to this meal—this cocktail. Smoked ice? We gotta move here.
Before we get into the details, we should mention that Smoke Signals is still on the menu at Laurelhurst. In fact, during the pandemic at the time of this writing, you can probably even order it to go. Visiting is a good option if you are in the area and can’t be bothered with all of the steps, but we always wanted to make it at home, starting with the smoked ice. Yesterday, we posted several options for making smoked ice, so please check that out first, and once you have the ice frozen and ready, continue forward. The smoke is the whole point of this cocktail, so don’t just skip that part and make a pecan whiskey sour (good, but not “move across the country” good).
The next step is to get some pecan syrup going. As simple syrups go, this one is pretty straightforward. You are using a hot method to dissolve 1 part sugar with two parts water and 1 part chopped pecans. Heat it up so the sugar dissolves and let it simmer for 15 minutes. This will saturate the pecans and draw their flavor into the syrup. It also reduces the water so you roughly end up with a 1:1 level of sweetener.
1 cup of water
.5 cup sugar
.5 cup chopped pecans
Combine in a small sauce pan over high heat. Bring to a boil to dissolve sugar, then turn down to a simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain out solids and bottle the pecan flavored syrup. Store in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
We went the extra mile with our syrup and toasted the dry chopped pecans for a few minutes in the pan before adding the sugar and water. You have to be very careful not to burn them by continuously stirring, but doing this with any nut helps to bring out the flavors. With the syrup in hand and smoked ice in a glass, you are ready to mix the drink.
If not for the quarter ounce of lemon, this would be a pretty sweet cocktail, but even this small amount of acid does help balance the sugar. It’s still on the sweeter side, but at a level that seems appropriate for a whiskey drink on the rocks. Speaking of whiskey, Laurelhurst Market uses Jack in this drink, but you could sub a bourbon if you don’t have any Tennessee whiskey in your inventory. The last component is sherry, and this is a master stroke for the overall aim of this cocktail. You want to use an Amontillado, although we used an oloroso with success. These dry sherry styles start as finos but are are darker with a more evolved fusion of aging processes that impart nutty aromas with tobacco, aromatic herbs and oak, giving the pecan syrup a flavor assist without adding sweetness.
If the first sip is good but leaves you wondering why you are not getting smoke, give it a little time. A properly shaken drink will already be cold when it hits the smoked ice, so not much smoke will be released. But as you drink it, the ice chunk will slowly shed water, and as it does, the fire will increasingly meet your nose each time you lift the glass. It definitely evokes a “sitting by the campfire” effect that grows over time, and as it does, so will your appreciation for not-so-subtle nuances when they are played against a backdrop that is simple, unique and delicious.