For the longest time, I only ever knew of two cocktails that had any spice in them. The first was a Bloody Mary (and variants), the other was a shot known as a Tabasco Surprise, which is made by layering Vodka on Tabasco sauce. But over the last few years Ive found myself using everything from ginger to coriander and fresh chilli. Lately Ive even used a pure chilli extract to create the worlds spiciest cocktail at my bar, Zenna in Soho; a drink so spicy it requires a waiver form to be signed before it is drunk.
The way the flavours of drinks interact with the spices varies hugely from their culinary counterparts. Spices that give off strong bold flavours in food might become far subtler when used in a mixed drink. For example, mixing coriander and lychee juice in a cocktail will give off a strong coriander nose, but the taste is all lychee with a slight tickle of coriander finish. Despite having quite a low spice tolerance, chillies are my favourite type of ingredient to work with in drinks at the moment. Like all other ingredients, the key is finding the right balance between flavours and experimenting with various intensities.
Why just have one chilli when you can have ten thousand?
Taking the initial steps to creating a spicy cocktail is always the hardest part¦ finding the right spice level for your drink, which means tasting the raw ingredient. As I mentioned, Im not the best with spice, so when it came to biting into fresh chillies to find out which ones were hot and which ones were nuclear wasnt exactly a highlight for me. Once you know what your options are you begin to realise that there are hundreds of combinations. The chilli wont affect the sweet / sour balance of your drink as it only adds an extra flavour, its like having a whole new category of ingredient to play with. The possibilities are endless. You have to choose whether or not to use natural heat from chilli, or manufactured heat from Tabasco and extracts, perhaps you might want to infuse them into spirits (extra hot chilli tequila is amazing), or you might prefer to muddle or blend the fresh ingredients into your drink for a real kick. But this mostly depends on the flavours that youre going to be working with. Some of the best combinations Ive come across have been with strong flavours like lemon juice, peach, lychee, orange, honey, and chocolate. All spirits work well with spice, but in my opinion tequila, vodka, and gin work best as their flavours naturally develop in different parts of your mouth to the chilli. Why not try and create a spicy lychee martini of your own, heres a recipe for my Bite Me Spicy Lychee Martini available at Zenna over Halloween:
2 parts Stolichnaya Vodka
1 part lime juice
0.5 part gomme syrup
2 parts rubicon lychee juice
2 slices jalapeÃ±o pepper
...all shaken and fine strained into a martini glass with¦0.5 part grenadine sunk into bottom