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It’s a sight you’ve likely seen when ordering an expensive, whiskey or mezcal-based cocktail at a bar—a bartender builds your drink, and then as a finishing touch, they shave off a long strip of citrus peel, be it orange, lemon or grapefruit. But they don’t just lay the peel in your drink, or tack it to the side as a garnish—instead, immediately before serving, they light the peel on fire, which ignites in a brief flare before it’s added to the cocktail. It’s called “flaming” a citrus peel, but what is really the point? Does it truly affect a drink’s flavor in a way that is different from adding a non-ignited citrus peel? Or is the choice merely an aesthetic one, adding a bit of dramatic flair to the presentation and helping to justify the cost of a $14 Manhattan in a consumer’s mind?
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the answer, as in so many of these cases, is “a little bit of both.” The action of flaming an orange peel does contribute some subtle flavor characteristics to the finished drink—not as big a difference as leaving out the citrus peel entirely, but it’s there. But at the same time, it’s also a simple and attention-grabbing process for a bartender, which adds to the theatricality that is inherent to mixing cocktails.
The key to this scenario, and the reason for cutting that strip of citrus peel in the first place, is the aromatic essential oils contained within the peel of citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. Although a bystander would likely assume that the juice or flesh of a fruit such as an orange is where we get all the flavor we think of as “orange,” the peel actually contains just as potent, or even more concentrated essence of that fruit—it’s the reason why peeling an orange fills the entire room with the scent of citrus. Therefore, when a bright, acidic, citrusy accent is desired on a cocktail, one of the best ways to go about achieving it is to cut off a strip of citrus peel and then squeeze the peel firmly above the glass just before serving. This causes a fine mist of citrus oils to shoot out from the peel, coating the rim of the glass and the surface of the drink. You might assume the effect would be negligible, but the aromatics are quite noticeable from a fresh peel, and they can make a big difference in how a customer perceives that drink.
So that’s why we squeeze a citrus peel (this is often referred to as “expressing” a peel) over a cocktail. Adding fire to the equation is another, optional step, but one that is especially common in cocktail bar settings where presentation and showmanship are part of the package you’re paying for. This process also explains how the “flaming” process works—it’s not like citrus fruits automatically burst into flame when you wave a match over them. They’re not inherently highly flammable, but the oils inside the peel are. Therefore, when you express a peel and shoot out that mist of oil into the lit flame of a lighter or a match, it combusts in a tiny, pretty fireball.
From a flavor perspective, why might a drink designer choose to do this? Well, bartenders who use the method argue that igniting the citrus oils helps to mellow them slightly, reducing the brightness and punchiness of the citrus profile while also adding subtle notes of char or smoke—which tend to play well with citrus. In a piece via the cocktail writers at Punch, New York bartender Joaquín Simó describes flaming an orange peel this way: “I’ve heard it described as ‘caramelizing the oils,’ but I prefer to think of it as adding a slightly smoky complexity to the bright orange fragrance.”
Flaming an orange peel is therefore a good idea when you’re designing a drink where you want some fresh citrus character, but also want to temper that character with some slightly darker tones, rather than keeping it at maximum brightness or vibrancy. This is likely why flamed orange peels tend to be a fixture in cocktails featuring darker, more barrel-driven or smokier spirits such as bourbon, rye or mezcal, which already may have some complementary roasty tones. By means of contrast, you seem to see the flamed citrus peel less commonly in cocktails based around spirits such as vodka or gin, perhaps because the “burnt” tones would stand out more strongly.
With all that said, however, “because it makes some attractive fire” is just as valid a reason for igniting citrus peels for many bartenders. In the same Punch piece, a Washington D.C. bartender named Chantal Tseng puts it nicely: “Overall, there are reasons to argue for it’s flavor. But nine times out of 10, it puts on a good show. After all, channeling one’s Promethean heritage excites our hidden—nor not-so-hidden—pyro tendencies.”
This also makes perfect sense, and it’s in line with the way that citrus extracts are used within tiki cocktail culture in order to produce the iconic flaming drinks for which the style is known. We cover all of this in much greater detail in this piece on flaming cocktails, but suffice to say, although high-proof alcohol is indeed flammable, even an ignited shot of 151 rum will only produce a pale blue flame—not very impressive and difficult to even see in a decently lit room. Ignited citrus extract, on the other hand, carefully placed in a hollowed out lime shell and balanced on top of a drink, will produce a large, long-burning, bright yellow flame that is much more attractive and memorable. It’s therefore one of the tricks of the trade, when it comes to producing impressive flaming drinks—and a flamed citrus peel serves the same function in a darkened cocktail bar as you sit at the rail, watching the little puff of fire that signals a high-quality drink is about to come your way.
And so, there you have it—flaming a citrus peel is part technique, part showmanship, and it’s quite easy to learn to do yourself. The tiny amount of citrus oil is insufficient to pose any real danger, so try it out yourself next time you make a Manhattan at home.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.