The Physics of the Flaming Cocktail

Mixologist Nick Ascenzo walks us through the Pele Poli'ahu, a volcanic cocktail he devised at Trader Vic's in Emeryville.


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All images by Kristan Lawson

So you want to light your drink on fire. 

Impress your guests. Become an Instagram sensation.

You've seen the gimmick before, in movies and at tiki bars. But how to ignite something that's mostly water? How to make it look spectacular? And most importantly, how to make it stop?

Nick Ascenzo, Director of Beverage at Trader Vic's on the Emeryville Marina, solved these tricky equations with his incandescent "Pele Poli'ahu," a cocktail based on a Hawaiian myth.

"This flaming drink tells the story of the rivalry between fire and ice in Polynesian mythology," he explains as he pours rum, grog, and grenadine into a cocktail glass almost the size of a football helmet. "Pele is the goddess of fire; Poli'ahu is the goddess of snow; in the myths, they battle to see which one is the strongest."

Igniting the entire surface of a drink so large would produce a lake of fire and likely earn a dire warning from the Emeryville Fire Department. So Ascenzo got creative, improvising with just the tools one finds behind a bar, and invented a floating ice volcano.

"First, I press crushed ice into a lime squeezer, using it as a mold, then freeze the whole thing so it makes a little bowl of solid ice. Pop that out and float it on top of the cocktail," he explains, demonstrating as he speaks.

And here's the answer to our initial question: Water doesn't burn, but alcohol does. But this liquor-fuel must be at least 100 proof to stay alight.

"The higher the alcohol content, the better the flame," Ascenzo notes. "Most everyone else uses hard liquor for the fuel, but I went one step further: lemon extract is actually 85% alcohol -- that's 170 proof. So I put some drops of lemon extract into sugar cubes, which concentrates the flame, like a wick," he says as he tweezes two incendiary cubes into the little ice bowl.

Brandish the extra-long lighter, stand back, and whoosh! Mauna Kea in a glass.

Another problem facing pyromaniac mixologists is: How the devil to extinguish the fire, once it starts? Ascenzo's precise calibration resolved that issue too: 

"The amount of lemon extract in the sugar creates a beautiful flame that lasts about one minute; after that, it runs out of fuel and goes out by itself. A minute is all the time you need, really, to put on a good show."

So Pele's fire is victorious at first, but ultimately Poli'ahu's ice (and the laws of physics) triumph. 

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