Turning up the Heat
Grippo infuses 151 proof rum with dehydrated chili de arbol with for four to five days “though sometimes we let it sit [longer], and it gets pretty spicy, but that’s the point.”
He uses the infused rum in an Elote Old Fashioned made with Mellow Corn whiskey, which has been infused with roasted corn on the cob. In fact, Grippo keeps the arbol-infused rum around “just for something to play with,” for when someone asks for a spicy cocktail, he says.
Another specialty involves infusing Benedictine with raw root horseradish and letting it sit overnight at a minimum. Grippo uses this in the Improved Japanese cocktail, along with Nikka Coffey Japanese grain whisky, nigori sake, and lime, finished with freeze-dried wasabi powder and a lime twist.
The Bowery Fix ($14) is a year-round cocktail at Saxon + Parole made with tequila and mezcal, yellow bell pepper juice—“which is so earthy and smoky,” Belfrand says—lemon juice, simple syrup and two types of chili. The first is a bird’s eye chili that’s been made into a tincture (soaked in high proof vodka for a week or two).
The second is a chili oil, made with dried chili flakes that have been mixed with olive oil and left to sit for about a week. Five or six drops of the chili oil are added to the top of the drink “which look like red pearls,” Belfand says.
To let customers know about the herbs and spices and how they’re being used, “We try to put everything on the description that’s relevant,” says Blackbird’s Grippo. “And often those are great selling points, because they’re something people are universally familiar with. It also creates talking points and there’s a little more mystery.”
Grippo likes to use chicory, which “is a flavor you don’t see in a lot of things.” He makes a chicory tincture with 151 proof rum as a base for his New Orleans Coffee cocktail ($10).
The drink, which also includes bourbon, cold-brewed coffee, simple syrup and water, is made in a keg and carbonated and served tall on ice. “It’s almost like coffee exaggerated with a cocoa thing going on,” Grippo says. “It’s burnt and roasted in a very pleasant and interesting way.”
Herbs and spiced garnishes can also add flavor and visual appeal to a cocktail. Mills Tavern’s springtime sip called The Ruby, made with strawberry- and rosemary-infused Tito’s vodka, Pavan, Aperol and fresh lemon juice, is served in a glass adorned with a rosemary sugar rim. “The rosemary adds some depth to the drink and a really nice mouthfeel,” Dietz says.
Dietz also candies herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage for garnishes. She dips the herb sprigs into simple syrup to coast, then shakes them in a bag of dry sugar, and puts on a rack to dry. The candied herb garnishes help sell the drinks, she notes.
“People enjoy herbaceous and spiced notes because it gives them a sense of place, or triggers a memory of something they enjoy,” Dietz says. “I think it helps sell the drinks, mainly because herbs and spices add flavor, and people look for flavor in everything they consume.”
Amanda Baltazar is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest who frequently writes about food and beverages.