When the leaves begin to turn, I typically start drinking hot cocktails to fight the chill in the air. But this season, instead of mixing up steaming mugs of spiked cider and cups of Irish coffee, I have a new plan to stay warm: spicy cocktails.
But adding heat to a drink requires a delicate touch and a bit of practice. Fortunately, some of the best bartenders in the country are also adding spicy concoctions to their menus.
At a recent conference of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi, Jose Medina Camacho of Birmingham bar The Marble Ring was muddling mezcal with bourbon, corn milk, poblano peppers, lime, and Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur—to delicious, subtly spicy effect. At New York City’s BlackTail, barkeep Nick Rolin has developed the Ventriloquist, in which mezcal, tequila, and rum mingle with Scotch bonnet-infused sherry and habanero bitters, which linger, delicate and fiery, at the end of the drink.
As Phil Ward of Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, explained, it’s, in fact, “stupidly easy” to infuse a spirit with chilies. The former partner of (now-defunct) Mayahuel, an acclaimed mezcal-centric cocktail spot with a popular “Some Like It Hot” section of the menu devoted to spicy drinks, explained that one can infuse tequila, mezcal, and even sherry with dried or fresh peppers.
But there are a few little tricks of the trade that are key to executing spicy spirits correctly. “The thing to remember with chili infusions is that the thing that makes them so easy is they don’t take very long,” he warns. If you’re popping jalapeños into a bottle of tequila, then leaving for a vacation for a week, you’ll return to some painfully hot tequila. Infused tequila can take as little as 15 minutes, according to Ward, whereas dried-chili infused spirits tend to take a bit longer—sometimes as long as overnight.
And if you want to use fresh jalapeños, “just use the seeds and the membranes in the tequila,” as opposed to the whole pepper. “You just get the spicy flavor of the jalapeño instead of the vegetal flavor,” which he thinks is “not as clean” as the pure heat contained in the capsaicin lurking in the placenta and seeds.
The heat in jalapeños is no joke, so for one 750-ml bottle of tequila blanco, Ward suggests adding the membranes and seeds of four to five jalapeños. Start tasting the liquor around the 15-minute mark to see if it’s hot enough. Strain the seeds and membranes out prior to use.
More of a sherry drinker? No problem. Ward is extremely partial to moscatel sherry paired with ancho chilies, which he thinks share a flavor profile. “Sherry is misunderstood and delicious,” he says. “It’s got that fat richness, which is a good contrast with flavor and heat.” If you want to try the two together, pop four ancho chilies in one 750-ml bottle of moscatel sherry and infuse for 24 hours.
When in doubt, think of heat as a finishing element, whether it’s in chili liqueur, chili bitters, or infused spirits. “We never made drinks to be so spicy that, like, ‘It’s so spicy, I’m a badass,’” laughs Ward. “Any flavor you put into a drink you need to balance out with other flavors, and every cocktail should finish with some sort of flavor.”
Dolores Del Rio
Created by Phil Ward
1.5 oz Jalapeño-infused tequila
1 oz Passion fruit puree
1 oz Lime juice
.75 oz Aperol
.5 oz Cane sugar syrup (2 parts cane sugar to 1 part water, simmered together and cooled)
pinch Kosher salt
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.