Back to all articles

The History of Liquid Smoke

A Missouri chemist named Ernest H. Wright invented liquid smoke in the early 1900s. At the time, smoke-curing was often used to kill bacteria and keep food edible for longer. The resulting taste was soon sought after (similar to how humans now seek out the tastes associated with pickled, sugared, or salted foods — methods once used for preservation rather than flavor.) Inspired by “a trickle of black liquid down a stovepipe” (smoke rising from a stove would encounter cold air, then collect in droplets, which ran back down the pipe), Wright decided to attempt to create what he called “condensed smoke.” His first test of his product? Coating a ham in it and serving it to his friends, unbeknownst to them. Thankfully, they were fans of the taste and Wright began distributing his product. At first, he sold it to rural farms, but he soon set up a business in Kansas City and began shipping his product all across the United States. Wright was the first manufacturer of liquid smoke, but he refused to patent his recipe because he was afraid that writing down his formula would allow others to copy him. Eventually, rival manufacturers worked out their own formulas and began producing liquid smoke, too. Notably, liquid smoke really is made from smoke. Chips or sawdust from hardwoods are burned at high temperatures and the particles are collected and concentrated. Today, some brands add additional seasonings, while others do not. It’s worth noting that because liquid smoke is made from real smoke, it does contain some carcinogens (modern manufacturers reportedly filter most of them out). Many modern commercial food producers now use liquid smoke in their products. For example, smoky bacon probably hasn’t actually been smoked; instead, the manufacturer has probably added liquid smoke. Liquid smoke is also sometimes used by home cooks to create the perfect smoky flavor in a dish, and bottles of liquid smoke are available on most grocery store shelves today.

Share this article

card showing the history of rocking chairs

Your go-to guide for weird history facts

Subscribe to the FREE daily email that makes learning about history fun.