Doctored with pepper

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chili heads, like cocktail geeks, are a tribe based on peculiar rituals, esoteric knowledge, exclusionary posturing and often a bit of machismo. Pepper people talk about Scoville units, measuring a pepper's level of hotness, the same way cocktail geeks rattle off ages and proofs of whiskeys and rums. Chili heads seek out exotic varieties, such as the Ghost Pepper or Red Savina, the same way cocktail people hunt for rare bitters and pre-Prohibition bartending guides. Casual drinkers probably grimace at the cocktail geek's 137-proof, cask-strength bourbon the same way the casual diner tears up at the thought of a Scotch bonnet or habanero. Both tribes have their niche publications. For cocktail geeks, it's Spirits Journal, Imbibe or Malt Advocate. For chili heads, the venerable Chile Pepper magazine is the bible.

Given the similar levels of geekdom, then, it has always made sense to me that Chile Pepper runs a cocktail column called High Spirits, written by Kara Newman. Newman has just released a book called "Spice & Ice: 60 Tongue-Tingling Cocktails" (Chronicle Books). I've enjoyed the book, and it has given me a chance to think closely over the past few weeks about the role of "spicy" in cocktails.

When it comes to spicy drinks, most of us probably think only about that dash of Tabasco in a Bloody Mary, or perhaps its cousins the Bloody Maria (with tequila) or Bloody Caesar (with Clamato). In the past I've suggested alternatives such as the Veggie Red Snapper and Vampiro, and this past spring I was taken with a Thai cocktail called the Siam Sunray, with muddled Thai peppers and lemon grass.

Newman's ideas, however, have pushed me in new directions. For starters, she has had me infusing lots of spirits with hot peppers. I've infused tequila with jalapeños, vodka with serranos, rum with chipotles, and even apple brandy with habaneros. There definitely has been a lot of trial and error in my kitchen. Though the infusion recipes are basic -- slice pepper, place in a few cups of booze, let sit for a couple of hours -- there is a huge variation in the heat of the peppers. Jalapeños, for instance, can vary between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville units. Habaneros can vary between 100,000 and 350,000.

I'm certain that was a major recipe-writing challenge for Newman, and she even encourages people to use her recipes as jumping-off points and not hard-and-fast formulas. With such variation, I experimented with different volumes of liquor, different amounts of sliced peppers, different infusion times. I also experimented with the spirits themselves. Blanco tequilas work better than reposados. In fact, a lighter, more citrusy tequila such as Don Julio is better for infusing than a more aromatic, earthy tequila such as El Tesoro. With the apple brandy, Laird's Bonded 100-proof stood up to the habanero better than a subtler Calvados did.

Then there was the issue of whether to seed the peppers. I didn't remove the habanero seeds in my first batch of infused applejack, and it was so hot that I needed a fire extinguisher to chase the first sip. But when I seeded my jalapeños, my tequila wasn't very spicy, even after it infused overnight. My conclusion: Experiment. I ended up not seeding, but starting out with slightly less pepper and adding more to taste.

Beyond infusions, Newman presents some interesting recipes, though I found myself tweaking those as well. I liked the Spicy Cucumber Margarita, with muddled jalapeños and cucumber. But I found myself increasing the amount of tequila and double-straining for a nicer drink. I used my habanero-infused apple brandy in a unique cocktail, included here, named the Zapple. Newman calls it a "whiskey sour on steroids"; I turned it into a long drink topped with mineral water.

As with all recipe books, some of the advice in Newman's is obvious: Use fresh ingredients; start with less heat and gradually work your way hotter; don't rub your eyes after cutting chili peppers.

But some truths are universal, especially when she writes: "Even if you're a rare drinker with Teflon taste buds, there's one cardinal rule for crafting spicy drinks. It's not about creating a flame-out of a drink -- it's about finding the right balance of heat." That is good advice for pepper people and cocktail people alike.

Jason Wilson can be reached at

© 2009 The Washington Post Company