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Greta Rybus
The Jakarta cocktail at Opium in Portland, Maine, offers an Asian twist on a Manhattan using smoky flavors.

Bringing Some Heat with Cocktails

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Spicy and smoky flavors can add an extra dimension to cocktails.
By Barney Wolf January 2018 Spirits

There’s a lot more to hot cocktails than toddies.

As mixologists become ever more creative, and customers seek more experiences, beverages that employ heat—not just temperature, but also spiciness and smokiness—are becoming more numerous.

“The way we grew up is not the way cocktails are made at a cocktail bar these days,” says Nahm Kim, lead bartender at Sunda in Chicago. “People are more adventurous and looking to expand their horizons. They are more interested in trying unique things.”

That’s great news for operators looking for differentiating drinks and for bar experts making them, whether it’s Lago Restaurant at the Bellagio in Las Vegas or a lounge like Tempo Dulu restaurant’s Opium at the Danforth Inn in Portland, Maine. 

“The cocktail menu is constantly evolving with new ideas, including using heat,” says Derick Baumgartner, a lead mixologist in Las Vegas for Back Bar USA, a beverage marketing and consulting firm. “We are able to run with creativity, and it’s awesome.”

Grain & Barrel

Grain & Barrel’s Dixie Black Pepper Vodka
Matti Anttila, CEO and founder of Grain & Barrel, says the Dixie Black Pepper Vodka has a light-to-medium body and finish that is peppery without being too spicy. The product is perfect for oyster shooters or even in a Moscow mule. “We’ve purposely kept the spice levels low on this blend so there isn’t the need to mute the flavor with other ingredients or spirits,” he says. 
Charleston, South Carolina

 

Taking advantage of temperature is nothing new in American alcoholic beverages, says wine and spirits expert Linda Pettine, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island. It goes back to colonial times and the flip cocktail. “If you look at the history of the tavern, there was often a fire in the fireplace and a poker nearby,” she says. The red-hot iron would be placed in a mixture of beer, rum, and sugar that would cause the drink to froth—or “flip,” giving the drink its name—while “releasing some of the aromatics and giving a smoky flavor.” 

Today, cocktails with elevated temperatures are likely to include coffee, tea, or cider, but the trend for heat is with spiciness, particularly with a wide range of savory ingredients that include various chilies, hot sauces, and chili-infused alcohol, Pettine says. The important part of employing hot peppers or other spicy ingredients is to not let the heat outweigh the taste. “You don’t want the only flavor to be painful heat,” Pettine says, “so balancing all the flavors with the heat takes a deft hand.”

The best way to approach spicy heat is to “take it easy on yourself and understand that consistency in agriculture is difficult,” says Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director for Barteca, which operates the multistate Bartaco and Barcelona Wine Bar chains. Chilies, for instance, “sometimes can be weak and sometimes brutally spicy.” At Bartaco, the Red Sonja cocktail employs spiciness with jalapeños and ginger, plus simple syrup, lemon juice, Byrhh Quinquina apertif, Olmeca Altos Reposado tequila, and Peychaud’s bitters. The jalapeños are cut to 1/8-inch rings—thicker if they are not spicy enough—and the key is how they are then treated.

“We don’t muddle them,” Thomas says. “We will put two or three in a shaker with ice, so when you’re shaking, you’re crushing them. Muddling extracts too much spiciness, and we are always looking for that balance of spiciness and flavor.”

At sister chain Barcelona Wine Bar, she added jalapeños and oranges to the modest-selling Caipi Porto and created a spring version that garnered more
interest.

Sunda’s Kim infuses Ransom Old Tom gin with jalapeños for the very popular Grass Tiger, which also has lime and orange juices, lemongrass syrup, and spanked fresh mint. He adds bottles of the gin to a container of the peppers and lets them sit for a couple of days. “What I am going for is a consistent heat level,” he says. Two other cocktails at the Asian restaurant bring heat. There’s a hint of wasabi in Lychee Luxury Drop, and an off-the-menu Bloody Mary uses ghost pepper–infused vodka.

Lago restaurant’s eponymous cocktail is known for its seasonal flower ice sphere, but it’s cayenne pepper that adds heat to the drink, which also includes Belvedere vodka, Amaro Montenegro, lime juice, and agave nectar. The Curious George cocktail at Le Cirque restaurant, also in Bellagio, features three drops of chili oil and a jalapeño salt rim along with Casamigos Reposado tequila, Licor 43, lime juice, and ginger syrup. “You get a mix of the sweet and the spicy,” Baumgartner says.

At Chaplin’s Ramen House and Cocktail Bar in Washington, D.C., co-owner Micah Wilder, who oversees beverages, developed a drink called Laughing Gas, thematically named for a Charlie Chaplin movie about a dentist’s office and nitrous oxide anesthetic. 

“I was tinkering with the idea for three years,” Wilder says, noting that he sought to create a tongue-numbing sensation that eventually reveals all the flavors in the cocktail. He found his answer in Japanese sansho pepper, which fits with the restaurant’s Japanese theme, stuffing two of the seed shells into a Turkish delight garnish. The drink includes Breckenridge gin, Golden Falernum, kumquat, and tonic.

While spiciness is one result of heat, so is smoke, and Chaplin’s Lazaretto cocktail features it in several ways, with smoked apple ice and a pork-belly garnish. The drink’s name is from an album by musician Jack White that was playing while he was smoking pork. The apple ice is created in the smoker as the pork is cooked. A bag of ice in cheesecloth is placed in a perforated tray in the smoker. The melting ice melds with the pork and smoke flavors and drips into another tray with apple wood chips; it is then refrozen. The rest of the drink includes Glenmorangie whiskey or Remy Martin 1738 cognac, Carpano Antica vermouth, honey, and peach bitters in the summer and apple bitters in the fall for a sweet finish.

Portland’s Opium uses another tack in its award-winning Jakarta, which gives a twist to a Manhattan that reflects Tempo Dulu’s Asian theme, says Alexa Doyer, beverage director. While smoked Manhattans are not new, many use a smoke gun. The bar team at Tempo Dulu wanted to find a different way. 

The Jakarta begins with setting fire to a small pyre of dried spices: pink peppercorn, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel. When the flames die, the opening of a stemless wine glass, misted with absinthe to provide a clinging substance, is placed over the smoke. Separately, Knob Creek rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, Cynar liqueur, and Coastal Root bitters are combined. The smoked glass is then turned upright and a bit of the liquid is poured in, with the rest decanted at the table so the smoky flavor remains throughout the drink. “You smell all the aromatics of the spices and you know someone ordered the Jakarta,” Doyer says.

The Smoked Marasca at Bartaco uses Del Maguey Vida mezcal and smoked pepper agave syrup that includes pimentón to provide a smoky flavor to the drink that also includes Luxardo Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur and lime juice with cherries as
garnish. 

Sunda’s Old Fashioned features brown sugar that has been smoke-infused in a bourbon barrel, plus Four Roses bourbon, cherry gastrique, and Angostura and orange bitters.

Typical hot-temperature cocktails would include drinks like Irish coffee or hot toddies made with tea, but Opium goes a step further with its 4th Gentlemen, which gets its name from the four plants of Chinese art. The cocktail employs a hot tea siphon; on the bottom is Barr Hill Tom Cat gin, Strega liqueur, Carpano Bianco vermouth, and hot water, while the closed chamber at the top has chrysanthemum, pink peppercorn, coriander seeds, lemon wheel, mint, and bay leaf.

“It’s a way to layer themes of art, and geographic locations, and taste,” Doyer says.