His mustache sharpened to pomaded points and his Oxford opened past the second button, Joseph Fredrickson is earnest and spirited—a living synecdoche for Society Lounge, the underground jazz club-cum-speakeasy he’s overseen for the last five years.
As he prepares me one of his winter specialties, the Smokey Robinson, a Manhattan-esque cocktail with a uniquely fiery finish, Joe describes how he once made a similar beverage for theater patrons fresh out of a showing of “Les Misérables” in Cincinnati. He hoped to evoke Jean Valjean’s gritty nature with a cognac cocktail wreathed in smoke. The Smokey Robinson is, like its own namesake, “smooth and sultry (but very) masculine,” he says. To set it apart from other Society gems, it’s accentuated with a touch of velvety flame.
The drink begins simply enough. Joe rifles around in Society’s expansive selection of obscure liquors to find the necessary five ingredients: Ron Zacapa rum, Laphroaig 10 year scotch whisky, Cardamaro, Carpano Antica vermouth (vastly “underutilized in America”), and a bottle of what he deems “the bartender’s handshake,” Fernet-Branca.
Joe pours these ingredients together into a mixing glass, adds some ice and stirs 35 times (urging readers to use their judgment as “the amount of rotations is ice-dependent”). After the last rotation of the cocktail spoon, Joe decants the drink into an egg coupe glass, and gathers some of the drink’s more curious components, including a butane torch.
Adding fresh smoke is a way of intensifying a drink’s natural flavor profile while adding visual panache. Crafting one requires the aforementioned torch and a smoking gun, which is composed of an open chamber for combustibles plus a black plastic tube. Joe’s smoking gun will take virtually any pulverized material, but the ideal choice for this drink is applewood. He also uses a smoke dome, which in this case is a bell jar. An inverted saucepot or an ice bucket will work, too—though you’ll lose visual allure with a cover of significant opacity.
Traditionally, one also needs a pedestal for the drink to rest on as it awaits the onslaught of smoke. A circular plank of wood with a hole drilled into it is rudimentary, but effective.
As I watch, Joe sets The Smokey Robinson under the smoke dome, attaches the smoking gun’s tube, and lights the applewood with the butane torch, sending a rush of thin white smoke under the dome to envelop the drink. All of this takes about four seconds.
Under the glass and draped in smoke, the crimson Smokey Robinson looks almost forbidding, like a fairy tale potion.
After the drink has enjoyed a good 20 seconds below glass, he lifts the dome and uses it to waft the smoke toward me. I lean in. I lift the glowing drink off of the wooden plank, the smoke still condensing on the glass’s rim. I take a slow sip. Both the bright acidity of the Cardamaro and the musky peat of the Laphroaig are deepened by the lingering smoke.
As the last ghostly traces clear, I take a few seconds to reflect on this multi-sensory experience. It really felt for a moment like I’d left the bar and tunneled into the past. That feeling, in itself, is worth the drink’s $14 price tag.
Joe and I talk for a while longer as I slowly finish the drink. As vice president of the Northern Ohio Bartender’s Guild, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things cocktail-related. He can, for example, tell you how to create appleinfused large format ice (freeze it upside down). He can name the Sazerac and Mint Julep’s shared original ingredient (a sturdy brandy). He can tell you the best garnishes to give a drink a bright perfumed finish (lose the maraschino cherries and get yourself a lemon or orange peel, stat). He issues his prediction on the future of cocktails (lower ABV, higher-caliber ingredients).
Despite his erudition and the admittedly intimidating theatrics of drinks like the Smokey Robinson, Joe has a simple mission in mind for Society Lounge: “making people feel welcome.” As he puts it, “Americans work way too hard . . . I love when people come here and they’re all stressed out. (I tell them) you’re out of work now, let’s enjoy it!”
Society Lounge is located at 2063 E. 4th St. in downtown Cleveland. For details visit SocietyCleveland.com or call 216.781.9050.