Cocktail trends evolve as operators and guests’ tastes evolve and the kitchen continues to have a distinct influence on the bar, as mixologists continue to incorporate hot peppers and other elements of spice in menus across the country.
“In general, there is a savory trend going on in cocktails. There was a push to sweet cocktails and the natural progression is for something savory: fresh herbs and peppers definitely fall into this category,” says John Poggemeyer, corporate beverage director for the Cleveland-based Hyde Park Restaurant Group, which runs 15 steakhouses restaurants in four states.
It also helps that restaurants with a Latin flair are growing in popularity. “The trend was sparked from the accessibility of different types of peppers that comes out of the rise in the number of Mexican restaurants found in the U.S. within the last five to eight years,” says New York-based consultant Junior Merino, founder of the Liquid Chef, adding that spicy peppers in cocktails—and food—are beginning to transcend being served in just Mexican venues. The spicy cocktail scene, while seemingly new, has been continually evolving for over the past five years. “People who play around with cocktails—whether classic or original—are always looking for new ways to express flavors, textures and sensation,” says Tad Carducci, a partner at the New York City-based cocktail consulting firm Tippling Bros. and a partner in the five-unit Mercadito chain. “It’s like umami—the additional unquantifiable taste that we are looking for—deliciousness, savory, etc. For me, using chiles in drinks gives that extra dimension to the cocktail.”
Some bar managers are playing off their guests’ desires to try new things and the natural addictive quality of the spice in the hopes of increasing their bottom line.
Caution: Heat Index
Using peppers may be trendy, but there is definitely a fine line to what is really too much. “It’s really about the balance: you don’t want to burn someone’s palate,” says Merino, who has been asked by customers to make some cocktails spicier. “A good drink has a heat that is well balanced.” The Alma Blanca, priced $12 to $13, served at Tequilas Restaurant in Philadelphia, is made with muddled corn, hoja santa (herbsaint), Habanero-infused Siembra Azul Blanco, Dainzu aloe vera-lemongrass syrup, lemon and pineapple juices and Domaine de Canton.
Poggemeyer cautions that the alcohol in cocktails tends to exacerbate the hot flavor. “If you just put a couple of crazy hot peppers into a drink—say as an infusion—it will be very hot,” he notes. Instead he muddles the spicy peppers and double strains before serving. For example, the Pineapple Jalapeño Caiprinha (priced at $10.25), served at Eleven, a cocktail bar that serves small plates, in Columbus, Ohio, is made with muddled fresh Jalapeño and pineapple with Leblon cachaca, lime juice and simple syrup.
Carducci agrees, “Getting the heat levels right is a very delicate dance—one I have mastered over the years with several ‘missteps.’” He spent time experimenting with various kinds of chiles to gauge the heat and flavor profiles. “Some are earthy, while others are fruity,” he says. “Learning this is key to pairing them with complimentary flavors.”
“I also learned how to train people on how to muddle a Serrano Chile into a cocktail without it being too hot. They are organic products, but there are tricks you can deploy to get a reasonable amount of heat,” explains Carducci. In the Little Market ($11) cocktail, Carducci mixes Espolon Reposado Tequila, fresh pineapple and lime juice, guajillo chile syrup, and Yucateca green habanero sauce, served in a Pico Pequin-rimmed glass.
Vincenzo Marianella, bartender at Copa D’Oro, a single-location cocktail bar, in Santa Monica, California, agrees that you need to use spicy peppers in moderation. “We stay on the mild side, so we can add more spiciness,” he explains. “If there is too much fire in the cocktail, you can’t take it away.”
For example, his King de Bahia, is made with Sagatiba Cachaça, St. Germain, passion fruit and Jalapeño Peppers.
Choosing the Right Pepper
Bartenders also note that is it really important to try to choose the correct pepper to pair with every drink. Carducci says that the decision on what pepper to use depends on whether or not he’s looking for flavor or just heat. “The green Habanero Sauce, for example, adds a little acidity with the heat.” He uses a pinch of cayenne powder in drinks to give the perception of heat without the flavor.
In his Dizzy Oaxacan, Carducci mixes Sombra Mezcal, Averna Amaro, grapefruit and lemon juice, simple syrup, ginger beer and ground cayenne.
Meanwhile, Poggemeyer uses Jalapeño Peppers because they are readily available—and “if you get anything hotter, it’s overwhelming.”
Merino has also experimented with some 80 different types of peppers and sauces when thinking about adding heat. He uses Chamoy sauce in the El Merino ($12 to $13), served at Casa Mezcal, which mixes the sauce with green mango juice, orange and lime juice, Dainzu hibiscus syrup, Royal Combier and Siembra Azul Reposado.
There’s no denying that peppers in cocktails are hot–but they are also popular with bar crowd, who are attracted to the addictive quality of the spice. “Spicy cocktails give an endorphin rush that gives people a buzz. It’s sort of addictive,” says Poggemeyer. “As you get a taste for it, you have to get more—and get hotter and hotter to get the same feeling.”
And customers are definitely intrigued. Murray Stenson, former senior bartender at the Zig Zag Café in Seattle, who is currently consulting, created a cocktail with Tabasco Sauce about five years ago that continues to be popular to this day. The Hot Charlotte is made with diced cucumber,Tabasco sauce, Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and lemon juice.
“People sitting at the bar that see this cocktail being made are intrigued by it,” Stenson says. “The cool thing about using spices in cocktails is that you can tailor it to the person’s tastes.” He was known to ask his bar patrons what level of spicy they want: “like at a Thai restaurant.”
The cocktail, which was never placed on the bar menu at Zig Zag, gained something of a cult following in the Seattle area. “It’s so popular that people have started asking for it at other bars around town,” Stenson explains.
At Copa d’Oro, peppers are highlighted on the market menu to bring attention to the out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, which include Bell Peppers and Jalapeños. “People always want to know what we are doing with the bell peppers,” says Marianella.
The menu allows consumers to choose their ingredients in a make-your-own cocktail experience. Marianella is not generally afraid of the cocktails being too hot. “You can use any spirit as long as you balance out the cocktail,” he explains. “I’ve used grappa, tequila and cachaça it really depends on the customers’ preferences.”
Beyond peppers, bar managers are also experimenting with other items that bring different types of “heat” to cocktails. Carducci uses different types of peppercorns—black or Szechuan, among other items. “Fresh ginger can add a really sharp crisp kind of heat,” he says, adding that fresh horseradish is always fun as well. “I do have a proclivity for setting drinks on fire and that does make it hot, too.”
With the popularity of kitchen-inspired cocktails, people are also experimenting with lettuces and herbs that can offer a hint of pepper. “It’s kind of cool to use lettuces and herbs that are peppery in their own right,” says Carducci. “Arugula is an interesting green—it has a well-defined flavor and pepperiness that definitely brings heat.”
For example, The Happy Josh is made with dry gin, lemon juice and arugula basil syrup. Poggemeyer has also found success with unconventional heat. His Thai Martini, slated to be priced from $9.50 to $10.25, will likely be made with Skyy DragonBerry, triple sec, sour mix, strawberry puree, blood orange juice, mint, basil leaves, strawberry puree, Chinese Five Spice Powder and Fee Brothers Bitters. “This recent addition to the list is very popular, but it is a little more complicated to create,” he says.
He is also planning to add a new savory cocktail made with black pepper syrup this fall. The yet-to-be-named cocktail is made with local Watershed Gin, strawberries, lime juice, black pepper syrup and Fee Brothers Bitters. A hint of spice also works well to rim a glass. For example, the Bloody Maria ($7.75) at Blakes’s Seafood Restaurant and Bar in Westlake, Ohio, is made with Jose Cuervo Silver and bloody Mary mix, served in a cinnamon and chipotle-rimmed glass.
Though these spicy quaffs are extremely popular among consumers, bar managers are mixed on their ability to mix well with food.
Poggemeyer says he wouldn’t pair the peppery drinks with spicy foods. “They are good as an aperitif or with an appetizer, but I wouldn’t serve it alongside a steak.”
“We certainly keep food in mind when making cocktails. If there is a savory or fruit element in a cocktail, they tend to pair well with similar foods,” he notes. “However, spice with spice tends to be overwhelming. Spicy cocktails with sweet foods tends to work well together.”
Marianella thinks spicy cocktails can go well with food. “Pairing cocktails with food is difficult do because the cocktail should compliment the food. We have rich foods and a spicy cocktail can work well with it.”
“I think it’s a personal preference—some people like spicy food and some don’t,” he adds. The same is true for cocktails.