From beer syrup to “smart” syrup to swapping a recipe’s prescribed syrup for something else altogether, the quest to pack as much flavor as possible into a sweetener has long been a bartender aspiration. Simultaneously, the thirst for spicy drinks has expanded well beyond the spicy Margarita.
It’s only fitting, then, that gochujang, the Korean fermented red chile paste, has found its way onto the backbar. Gently sweet, peppery and a touch savory, gochujang “adds body and richness to a cocktail; the viscosity stays thick, even more so than a traditional syrup,” says Dave Park, chef and creator of the drinks program at Jeong in Chicago.
Jeong’s aptly named Gochujang cocktail features the paste in a simple gochujang syrup, made by combining the paste with water and sugar. The sweetener provides a shortcut to layered spice; unlike a chile pepper–infused syrup, which requires time for heating and steeping, gochujang syrup can be made simply by blending. With the syrup on hand, it’s a sweet and smoky tool that can balance the acid in a variety of sours, from Daiquiris to Whiskey Sours. For example, in Jeong’s Gochujang, the syrup is shaken with gin, raspberry liqueur, lime juice and calamansi syrup in a cocktail designed to “utilize a Korean ingredient and showcase it as the star,” says Park.
With its vibrant color and aroma, it’s easy for gochujang to stand out in this way, but the paste can also play a backup role. Outside of a syrup, Park says infusing a spirit like gin with gochujang could yield an easy base for a spicy Gibson. Infused into vodka, it could “enhance the fiery qualities of a Bloody Mary,” while coupled with similarly earthy tequila, it could bring nuanced heat to a spicy Margarita. “Because gochujang is smoky, savory and sweet, it can be a very versatile component in a variety of cocktails,” says Brandon Sass, general manager at Young Joni in Minneapolis.
Sass uses the paste in his Rubber Soul cocktail, an extra-smoky Penicillin riff made with gochujang-honey syrup, tequila, ginger cordial, lemon juice and Lapsang souchong tea. Rather than blending the paste into simple syrup, the riff calls on honey, which adds an additional “floral and spiced flavor and aroma,” says Sass. He says the syrup can work well in other classics made with honey, such as the Gold Rush or the Brown Derby. Parker Luthman, of The Eddy in Providence, Rhode Island, also calls on a honey-gochujang syrup in his take on the Old-Fashioned.
Ultimately, gochujang works so well in drinks because, while its spicy-salty flavor may be the first layer to register, “it has a gentle sweetness that lingers after the pungent spicy notes,” says Park. “With cocktails, the more intense the flavor, the easier it is to showcase, so it makes total sense.”