Cocktail bartending is a lot like baking—precision and accuracy are crucial to a good result. The best, or at least the most consistent, cocktails are painstakingly measured down to the drop, dash and ounce. There is one exception to this rule that’ll turn a cocktail into a culinary endeavor: making it spicy, which requires an additional level of care in preparation. Heat levels of ingredients like peppers can swing wildly even across the same plant, so transferring that quality into a cocktail often relies more on tasting along the way than on set quantities and timing. Heat preference, too, can run the gamut, from the “black pepper is too hot” drinker to the ghost pepper challenge aficionado. The following techniques and guidelines, however, will help you get the heat just right on your next cocktail.
Infuse a Spirit
My personal favorite way to make a big batch of spicy cocktails is to infuse the spirit with a flavorful pepper like fresh jalapeño, serrano or habanero. Alcohol is a terrific vehicle to capture flavors, so your infusion time will be brief. I love this method for unaged spirits like blanco tequila, mezcal and even gin. The quantity of peppers required for the infusion will vary based on their heat level—usually two or three jalapeños per 750-milliliter bottle of spirit or a single pepper for something at habanero intensity. Slice the pepper thinly for maximum extraction. For more flavor and less heat, remove the seeds. Once the booze and peppers are combined, don’t take your eyes off of it. Taste the infusion every minute on the minute, stirring regularly until it reaches the desired heat level. Once the heat is where you want it, immediately strain off the peppers. One final tip: Only infuse half of the spirit you plan to add to your batch, so if the heat of your infusion becomes overpowering, you can always cut it with the unadulterated spirit.
Steep Into Syrup
A great way to add heat without committing to the expensive prospect of a spirit infusion is to make a spicy syrup. To start, simply raid the spice cabinet for dried ingredients like crushed red pepper flakes or bird’s eye chiles. This is the only case where I will advocate for heating simple syrup—sugar and water don’t grab flavor the way alcohol does, so heat will help jump-start the infusion. Bring equal parts (by weight) sugar and water to a bare simmer. Cut the heat immediately and stir in 1 percent of the syrup’s total weight in crushed dried chiles. (If you added 500 grams water and 500 grams sugar to the pot, add 10 grams of chiles.) Once again, this is one to watch closely. Stir regularly and taste on the minute. The sweetness can mask the heat, so you’ll know it’s ready when you feel the burn at the back of your throat. Strain out the solids, and use as you would any standard simple syrup.
Use a Tincture
The easiest way to make a single cocktail hot is to use a spicy tincture. This is usually an infusion of fresh or dried chiles in high-proof neutral distillate (100-proof vodka or Everclear are great widely available options). Unlike an infused syrup or spirit, a tincture is deployed in minuscule quantities—usually only a few drops per drink, so there is no need to make a massive batch. Start with half a bottle (375 ml) of high-proof neutral spirit in a neutral resealable container, add your favorite thinly sliced fresh peppers or crushed dried peppers, and let it rock for as short as an hour or as long as a few days. Taste it regularly, but really let those flavors develop. Remember, you’ll only be using five drops or so per drink, so it needs to pack a wallop. Once it’s as turbocharged as you desire, strain off the peppers and pour into an eyedropper bottle. Keep it on hand to spice up your next round of Margs.