Retire the Fire: The Hazards of Flaming Food and Drinks

Michael GrossmanAugust 28, 2017 4 minutes

Sometimes ordinary folks with a thirst for adventure order flaming drinks, in which the alcohol in the cocktail is set ablaze as part of the presentation. It's quite a sight, but is it worth the risk that comes from adding fire to the situation? A recent incident in a Denton suburb made me wonder.

Here's What We Know.

According to reports, emergency responders were dispatched to the Shoal Creek Tavern, a pub in The Shops at Highland Village, around 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, July 12.

On arriving, they discovered that two people had suffered what were described as "major burns from the waist up" after ordering flaming cocktails at the bar. The tavern's manager alleged that the bartender was in the process of making the drinks when a liquor bottle broke and splashed the customers, at which point the fire from the cocktails followed, igniting the patrons. He characterized their burns as "superficial" and noted that medics were called "just to be cautious."

Both people were taken by helicopter to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where their injuries were deemed non-life-threatening. The Shoal Creek Tavern issued a statement on Facebook acknowledging the incident and explaining the unusual circumstances. The statement noted that "[their] thoughts and prayers go out to these two customers and their families." My own cynicism about the phrase "thoughts and prayers" aside, I echo their sentiment in hoping the pair recovers quickly and fully.

Things Like This Are Completely Avoidable.

The manager's account of events (unavoidably biased) states that a bottle broke during drink prep by a seasoned bartender--an unpredictable and highly unfortunate turn of events. I accept that with only the slightest skeptical raising of eyebrows; bartenders move at a fairly brisk pace, especially if they have a lot of customers waiting.

No matter your bartender's level of showmanship, I get how it's pretty cool to order a burning cocktail. However, it's even better to leave a bar in your own vehicle and not an ambulance. My concern is mostly that in a situation with so many variables (including keeping track of who's too intoxicated to further serve), it seems unwise to introduce something as unpredictable as fire. Consider some obvious drawbacks:

  1. You're deliberately setting something on fire around hundreds of gallons of combustible fluid. Even in tightly-controlled conditions things sometimes get out of hand, as shown by Wednesday's incident. It works on the same principle as not smoking at a gas station: better not to introduce fire around highly-flammable substances than to roll the dice and hope for no consequences.

  2. You might also be trusting an open flame to a possibly-inebriated person. Intoxicated people don't always have the faculties to avoid making bad choices, so sober people acquire the burden of not letting them have dangerous things. Drunk driving fatalities provide grim proof of that concept. On a smaller scale, if my drunk buddy asked me for my pocketknife, I most likely wouldn't oblige him. Even if the supposed need was benign, like cutting a loose thread, I wouldn't trust him to have the dexterity he'd need to do so.

    The same goes for a flaming cocktail--a sober patron would most likely extinguish it before taking a sip, but what if they didn't because they assumed a trained bartender wouldn't hand them something dangerous? If we have doubts there, can we really be sure a drunk patron would think to blow the flame out? Couldn't someone in an impaired state just instinctively tip the drink back without thinking to eliminate the flame between it and his face? The answer is unequivocally yes. *Warning: Linked video contains a lot of strong language, as one might expect during surprise immolations.

These are just a couple of possible hazards off the top of my head, but they both relate more or less to the same idea: the amusement factor of fire doesn't outweigh its dangers. It's purely cosmetic, and for safety's sake it should be eliminated from the menu.

Consume It or Burn It. Not Both.

The Shoal Creek incident doesn't seem to have been about human negligence, since a broken or leaking bottle seems to have been the culprit. I certainly wouldn't suggest the couple was to blame; day-drinking is nothing new conceptually, but no has tried to pin it on the victims in any way, and I'm not saying differently. They were splashed with liquor and caught on fire afterward, through no error of their own. In fact, I'm not really pointing fingers at all; this genuinely sounds like a bad shake-out of something the bartender had done a thousand times before. The cause isn't easily attributed, but that doesn't mean anybody gets to just shrug and say "them's the breaks, time to move on." If legal action were taken, it's probable that an investigation would be necessary to identify the related issues.

It's worth noting that this was a bad week in Texas for flaming consumables. An Austin woman at the restaurant Dos Salsas was badly burned after receiving her order of "Quesos Flameados," a queso dish served en fuego and sprayed with an additional substance in front of diners to make the flames rise dramatically. The server who brought the queso dish allegedly sprayed the accelerant laterally instead of from above, creating a "flamethrower" effect that engulfed the unlucky victim in flames. The negligence in that incident is far clearer: Given that the waitress apparently created the hazard, the issue seems to be a failure to train, which is a theory of liability in injury law. I hope the victim (who has filed suit) receives appropriate justice.

I think most victims would gladly exchange their injuries and awarded damages for a chance to avoid the damage in the first place. Fire-less food and beverages might make a few customers yawn, but that's much better than making them scream.