Beyond Bloody Marys, micheladas, and spicy palomas, there’s a whole world of spicy cocktails to explore. Bartenders are playing with the delicate balance between sweet and heat to refresh consumers but still feel the burn.
Fresh produce can play an important role in many spicy beverages. Bar managers use ingredients like jalapeños, habaneros, cucumbers, cayenne, Tabasco, Thai chilies, Sriracha, Chinese mustard, and more to send a wake-up call to guests’ taste buds.
At BLT Steak in Washington, D.C., the That’s So Chili drink features chile-infused tequila, strawberry rhubarb syrup, lime, and salt foam. “Rhubarb and strawberry pair well together, and the sugar from the fruit tames the spice of the jalapeño,” says beverage director James Nelson.
Peter Danyluck, beverage manager of Kachina Cantina in Denver, chooses refreshing ingredients like cucumbers and citrus in his spicy cocktails. The jalapeño-cucumber margarita at Kachina is a riff on a classic margarita with the addition of macerated jalapeño and crisp cucumber.
Bryson Downham, beverage director at Toups’ Meatery and Toups South in New Orleans, says that the Toups’ Manhattan is the former restaurant’s flagship drink. It began as a Manhattan with a few dashes of Tabasco hot sauce, but the vinegar of the Tabasco and the bitter tannins of the sweet vermouth clashed.
“Over time we refined the cocktail by switching to a barrel-aging approach,” Downham says. Tabasco is aged in oak barrels that previously held Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Afterward, the barrels are broken down into wood chips and sold for barbecuing. Downham and his team then fill a glass container with bourbon and some of the aged wood chips and let it rest for 48–72 hours.
At The Grocery in Charleston, South Carolina, bar manager Sean O’Brien reaches for the jalapeños because they’re easier to work in monitoring the level of heat. “On the other end of the spectrum, I also really like habaneros, because they’re very spicy but have a nice floral note to them,” O’Brien says.
In addition to Thai chilies and jalapeños, Michael Patterson, bar manager of Shojo in Boston, says the bar likes working with the kitchen to experiment with ingredients, ranging from chili-infused sesame oil and togarashi to Sriracha and Chinese mustard. “Each spicy ingredient interacts differently with different spirits, and some can enhance each cocktail texture or appearance, much like they do in a dish,” he says.
Balancing flavors and heat
When it comes to spicy beverages, experts recommend starting slow and building heat. Downham says it’s important to consider whether guests want to sweat or just have a tingle on their palate. “Spicy loves sweet and umami but clashes with bitter,” he says. Extra sweetness will mitigate some perception of spiciness, while acids will heighten that fiery sensation, he adds. Savory herbs and meaty flavors, like garlic or black vinegar, can also fly well with a little heat.
Balancing a spicy cocktail can be tricky.“The capsaicin can feel much more prevalent in the presence of alcohol,” The Grocery’s O’Brien says. “The best way I’ve found to balance it is to use a rich syrup or a viscous liqueur; they will help coat the palate and deter the capsaicin from being too forward. Dairy is also a good way to help counter the heat.”
Shojo features a drink called the Kamehameha, which uses coconut cream–coconut milk mix to help balance the heat. For a serious kick of heat and flavor, Patterson doubles up with a house-made vodka infusion of Thai chilies and a smoky, chipotle-infused vodka called Fire Puncher from GrandTen Distilling.
At The Grocery, the Diablo Verde is a fun take on a simple spicy margarita. Reposado tequila, Ancho Reyes, and brown sugar all have an earthy undertone that play very well with the herbal green chartreuse and jalapeño tincture. “With herbal and vegetable notes, it has much more depth of flavor,” O’Brien says.
Coconut is one of the more popular ways bartenders cool down spicy ingredients, as shown with the Kamehameha. “This drink’s spiciness really works because the sweet coconut mix coats your tongue while the lemon’s citrus and sugar levels help relieve the inferno that comes from the chile-infused vodkas,” Patterson says.
Ingredients like cucumber and citrus can cool down palates, as in Kachina’s margarita.
As spicy cocktails continue to curry favor with beverage directors and consumers alike, they’re also becoming more sophisticated. Already Downham has observed people step away from pepper infusions and hellfire bitters to more thoughtful, flavorful techniques.
“There’s an increased focus on using the flavor of your spicy ingredient as an integral part of the drink, and not just as a source of heat,” he says. “You combine it with ingredients that complement the spice in order to achieve a well-balanced, spicy cocktail. The spicy ingredient becomes the centerpiece—it’s what you’re showcasing.”