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caramelized sugar cocktail
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Those who love tarte tatin, Bananas Foster, and crème brûlée know that when sugar begins to scorch, it can make for a truly delicious dessert. It makes sense, then, that drinks incorporating the same principle—sugar, set ablaze—can be equally delightful.

Setting Alcohol on Fire

We’re not talking about the Blue Blazers—a bright-blue flame of alcohol poured showily from vessel to vessel—familiar to anyone who lived through its big-haired 1980s heyday. The new caramelized-sugar cocktails are actually more reminiscent of the 1780s and 1880s than the 1980s. Cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of “Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl,” says his best guess about the nascent trend, which he has spied in his travels, traces to the “now-I-set-my-bowl-of-punch-on-fire!” punches one might have seen in the 19th century—or burnt brandy concoctions in the 18th.

Ginger Liqueur & Lemon Hart 151

Danny Neff, head bartender of New York City’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge, was the first to tip us off to this use of sugar: He’d combined lemons, sugar, a high-proof rum called Lemon Hart 151, and ginger liqueur in a shaker, and set it ablaze. (The rum is high in both alcohol and natural sugars, making it an ideal fit for this process.) Neff allows the mixture to burn and caramelize for 15 to 20 seconds, adding gin afterwards, then straining it into small glasses.

The effect was incredible: Because caramelizing sugar “intensifies it,” as Neff says, the drink’s taste surfed a wave of caramel-sweet to sour to sweet again. The creation was, he says, “a very broad variation on a caipirinha”—Brazil’s popular cocktail, made with sugar, rum, and lime. Neff was originally inspired by Clif Travers, a onetime mentor at The Rum House in Manhattan, where the menu offers several riffs on a classic daiquiri. Travers showed Neff how to make a smoked daiquiri using a similar style of caramelizing, but with limes rather than lemons.

Caramelized Sugar Cocktail Trend

And this isn’t just a New York trend: In New Orleans, bartender Abigail Gullo of Compère Lapin has used a caramelized sugar rim on her drinks. In 2007, she tells us, she spun together a drink she called “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for her very first cocktail contest. Made with fresh pears and brandy, the drink benefitted from the “toasty notes” she says the caramelized sugar lent it. “I wanted to create the favors of my youth in Vermont, when we would pour maple syrup on snow we had saved in the freezer since winter and make candy called ‘Sugar in Snow,” she says.

Curious? You can play around with various types of burned and caramelized sugar drinks at home or in your rental kitchen—carefully, please!—but in our opinion, this is a trend to keep an eye out for when you’re out and about in 2016.