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Gizmodo's Guide To Setting Drinks On Fire

“Fire is cool,” quoth Beavis, and yea verily, Butthead did agree. And, honestly, so do we. There’s a little bit of a pyro in most of us, and a flaming drink is certainly a spectacle. That said, there’s a right way, and a whole lot of wrong ways to do it. Here’s the red hot skinny.

It’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s weekend booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. I can’t feel my face, which is good, because it’s on fire.

Why Light Your Drink?

Let’s not bullshit ourselves: 99 per cent of the reason people light their drinks on fire is because it looks cool. It’s exciting, it’s dangerous. It’s almost entirely about the spectacle. That said, it does make subtle alterations to the drink’s flavour.

The biggest change is that it burns off some of the alcohol. Our tastebuds have trouble making out different, subtle flavours when they’re being pummelled with booze. Lowering the proof of the drink will allow you to taste the other elements more. It will, however, get you less drunk the longer you let it flame.

Some will tell you that you do it to warm your drink, which it will a bit. Not a lot, but a little. Anyone who remembers 8th grade science knows that heat rises. Since the flaming element is at the very top of your drink, almost all of that heat energy it’s going up and into the air. It can, however, heat the glass it’s in, which will conduct some heat downward. But the bottom line is that you’d have to let it burn for quite a while to really heat your drink, and you’d lose a ton of the alcohol. There are better ways to warm your beverage.

Others will tell you that it “caramelises” an element of the drink. There is some debate about this, but we aren’t buying it. Again, heat rises and the sugary elements of the drink (amaretto, for example) are down below the flaming high-proof top. Different sugars caramelise at different temperatures, with the lowest (fructose) starting at 115C. There is simply no way that’s happening underneath the surface of your drink. Sorry. It is, as we’ve mentioned, certainly is possible to add flavour to your drink with fire, but there are different principles at work.

How It Works

As we mentioned in our Five Scientifically Surprising Facts About Booze piece, it’s not really the liquid burning, it’s the alcoholic vapours coming off it that catch fire. Generally speaking, higher proof liquor equals faster evaporation and more vapour, but this is dependent on temperature. Hold a match to 80-proof vodka at room temperature, and it won’t catch fire. Hold a lighter’s flame or a butane torch to it, though, and it will ignite temporarily. This is because lighter’s flame is heating the booze a little, and thus generating more vapour. If you carefully heat the vodka to a higher temperature, it produces a lot of vapour, and it will catch fire and burn energetically. (Note: Do not try to do this. That’s how I almost burned down Gizmodo HQ last year. Shhhh…) At the same time, even 100 per cent pure ethanol will not ignite if the liquid is 13C or lower.

Because you are typically pouring drinks at room temperature, you need to use a high-proof spirit. Bacardi 151 and Chartreuse are classic examples. In most cases you prepare the full drink and then top it with the really hard stuff. The purer (higher-proof) alcohol will generally be lighter than the other ingredients and will want to stay floating at the top, but it will mix with the rest of it if you’re not careful. To help facilitate the floating, pour it very slowly and gently, ideally over the back of a spoon (as if you were making a Black and Tan), so it stays up at the top. Do it right and the drink will light easily.

Safety First

  • Make sure the area where you’re preparing the shot is uncluttered and free of anything flammable. That includes paper towels, napkins, dish clothes, carpet and small dogs.
  • If you spill any of your high-proof booze as you’re pouring it, clean it the hell up before you light the drink. Make double sure you get any of that booze off your fingers and hands before you light up.
  • Light with something self-extinguishing, like a standard cigarette lighter. Matches and Zippo-style lighters may impart some nasty flavours onto your drink. The safest option is one of those long-neck, aim-a-flame type lighters made for lighting BBQs and candles.
  • Use a thick glass. As mentioned, exposing glass to fire heats it. Not only is thin glass weaker, but it will heat very rapidly which could shatter it, spilling flaming alcohol everywhere. Not good.
  • Don’t fill the glass all the way to the top. You’re either going to be blowing it out or snuffing it out with your hand. If it’s too full you’re going to blow/splash flaming liquid out of the glass, in which case I hope you’re insured.
  • Have a fire extinguisher within arm’s reach an make sure you know how to use it. If this goes wrong, it can go very wrong.

IMPORTANT: PUT THE FIRE OUT BEFORE YOU DRINK!

Do you want to be these guys? No. God no, you do not. We all have delusions of grandeur, and yes, lifting a flaming drink to your lips and drinking it looks totally awesome in all of your secret sci-fi dreams and a sea of girlfriends (or boyfriends) fall at your feet yearning to procreate with you. In real life you end up in the burn ward. You know what’s better than the burn ward? Pretty much everything else. It never ends well, so please don’t be that idiot.

It’s also worth noting that the flame alcohol gives off is generally blue and may not be particularly bright. If you’re in a well-lit room you may not be able to see the flames. In other words, check to be absolutely certain that the flame has gone all the way out.

Some Recipes

The Flaming Dr Pepper

  • 20mL Amaretto (almond) liqueur
  • 10mL Bacardi 151 Rum
  • 230mL of beer (lager)

Pour the Amaretto into a shot glass. Top it carefully with 151. Fill a separate pint glass half way with beer. Light the shot on fire and let it burn for a little while (15 seconds-ish). Carefully drop the shot into the pint of beer, which should put out the fire (if not, blow it out. Or blow it out before you even pick up the glass). Gulp the whole concoction down, being careful not to chip a tooth on the shot glass that’s in there. People swear it tastes just like Dr Pepper. We’ll let you be the judge.

The Backdraft

**Warning: This is an advanced drink. Not only is the potential to burn yourself high, but it will mess you up something proper.**

  • 45mL Green Chartreuse
  • 10mL Black Sambuca
  • 3 dashes of cinnamon
  • handful of ice cubes

There are variations on this drink, but this is the one I know. Put a plate down on your table or bar. Pour the Black Sambuca into a shot glass and place in the centre of the plate. Now pour the Chartreuse into a pint glass and swirl it around a little to coat the sides. Light the Chartreuse in the pint glass and let it burn for a few seconds, then pour it over the shot of Sambuca. The shot of Sambuca and the plate it’s on will now be on fire (that’s why you need a plate). Shake a few dashes of cinnamon onto the plate, which will spark and produce more flame.

Now, turn the pint glass upside down and put it over the flaming shot glass (which should extinguish it). Carefully blow out the flames on the plate. In one swift move, remove the pint glass, throw the ice cubes into it, and seal off the top of it with the palm of your hand. Give it a couple quick shakes, then force a straw between your fingers and inhale the alcoholic vapours inside the glass. Once you’ve done that, drink both the shot and the spilled liquor in the plate through the straw.

When done properly, it looks like this. As I said, it’s a dicey manoeuvre for many reasons. Aside from all of the flames and fire, inhaling alcohol vapour is quite dangerous, as we noted in Seven Ways to Get Drunk Without Drinking. Read that article for the full breakdown on why, but suffice to say that it will hit you much harder than just drinking the shot, so you have to be extremely careful, and really, don’t do more than one in a night. I did one at some dive bar in Oakland a few years ago and my memories of that night are very fuzzy from that moment on.

So, now you’ve got the basics. Be very careful, and if you have any favourite flaming recipes, or, even better, a favourite story of one of these drinks going wrong, please share it in the discussion below. See you next week for another Happy Hour.

Picture: Shutterstock/Africa Studio


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