How to Properly Set a Drink on Fire

 Did you know that cinnamon will spark when grated over a flame? Or that lemon extract is more flammable than absinthe?  

We sat down with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, renowned author, Tiki expert and owner of the Latitude 29 in New Orleans, to discuss cocktail pyrotechnics––the good, the lousy and the … don’t ever do it.  

Berry is a global authority on Tiki drinks, and we couldn’t think of a better man to pose a pressing question.  

“How does one properly light a drink on fire?”  

Berry gave us a not only a lesson in cocktail pyrotechnics, but also some history of the Tiki movement. We learned a lot. Mainly that fire and drinks are best left to the professionals. 


Vices: Hi. Latitude 29 is fantastic. We love all the kitsch and really dig your delicious Outcast of the Islands drink.  

Beachbum Berry: Thanks! 

Vices: Tiki drinks are all about the showmanship. When would you say they started to come with flames as part of the presentation? 

Beachbum Berry: Flaming drinks came in around in the 1950s … along with fancy Tiki mugs and bowls. It was a second-wave in the Golden Age of Tiki. It was a time when bartenders were looking for more theatrical ways to entertain customers. Tiki has always been about the escape of everyday life to something more exotic.  

VicesIf someone is having a party and wants to set a drink on fire, can you give us the proper procedure? 

Beachbum BerryThere are really two ways to do it. The original way is to cut a lime in half and squeeze all the juice out of it. Then you pull out all the excess fruit and pith. In your little empty lime shell bowl, pour 151-proof rum. 

Vices: It needs to be an over-proof spirit? 

Beachbum Berry: Yesbecause otherwise it won’t burn. You need really high alcohol content. Then you place that lime half the center of a drink … on top of enough ice to keep the lime level … and you ignite it. You will get a low blue flame. It’s not very impressive, especially if the place you are serving it isn’t low light. The flame is blown out, and you splash that small amount of rum into the cocktail and drink it. 

Vices: Let’s say we want to make a Scorpion Bowl to share. If we want a flame that’s more impressive in stature, is there another route to create that? 

Beachbum Berry: Yes. There is a second way. A certain trick was taught to me by Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove bar in San Francisco. You take a few tiny pieces of white toast. Not bread, but toast. You put that in the center of the Scorpion Bowl and rather than dousing it in rum, you soak it in pure lemon extract. Lemon extract is actually higher proof. The one I like is 166-proof.  

Vices: Wait … can someone get drunk off lemon extract?  

Beachbum Berry: Why would someone ever want to drink lemon extract?  

Vices: Just for sake of argument. If there were a nuclear war and you are stuck alone in a bunker … and you are just that bored? 

Beachbum Berry: In that situation, I would recommend covering yourself in lemon extract and lighting yourself on fire. It would literally be preferable to drinking this stuff.  

Vices: Ok. Glad that’s settled. Let’s get back to the flaming Scorpion Bowl. 

Beachbum Berry: Ok, so you will find this method really does work much better than rum. The toast pieces act as a means to soak the extract up and hold it, so that you can light it. It’s like kindlingInstead of a low blue flame, you will get an orange flame that’s higher and much brighter. 

Vices: Any other pyro-technic tricks or advice up your sleeve? 

Beachbum Berry: There’s one other thing Martin Cate taught me. When you have a flame, you can grate cinnamon over it and it will spark. All of these presentations are dangerous, especially when people are drinking. It can be a disaster. I’d say the first thing you need is a good, comprehensive insurance policy. We cannot have flaming cocktails at Latitude 29 because of our lease, but I wouldn’t want to do fire here even if we could. If you do this at home, I’d advise making one Scorpion Bowl, having some very long straws and then extinguishing the flame after the presentation of it. Drinking responsibly includes not catching on fire.