Last week, PUNCH introduced “Drunk Abby,” a regular column that explores all of your drinking queries via the advice of an expert. The inaugural Abby? Lior Lev Sercarz, a.k.a. the Spice Whisperer. A master of pairing and blending flavors at his New York City spice store, La Boîte, Sercarz has worked with everyone from Daniel Boulud to Jim Meehan to Brooklyn Brewery to create spice mixes for the kitchen and bar alike.
Here he has answered your deepest, darkest booze queries, including how to use a sh*tload of bay leaves in cocktails and what pepper pairs best with a Negroni.
Should I pair spiced cocktails with food? If so, should the I use the same spices or complimentary ones?
Not everyone drinks a cocktail everyday with a meal, but cocktails can definitely be paired with food. Personally, I like when the theme or style of drink is similar to the type of food served. For example, using curry in cocktails alongside an Indian-flavored meal. The two easiest ways to do this are with a flavored simple syrup or rimming a glass with the spice. You could also infuse a light spirit, like gin, with the actual spice. Beyond that, there is the curry leaf. Xavier Herit, when he was bartending at Daniel, would muddle fresh curry leaves into a cocktail for a brighter, fresher flavor. Similarly, if you’re dealing with Thai flavors or Thai curry, you can add fresh coconut or coconut milk to a compliment the heat. With things like gravalax, aquavit and juniper would do well. The simple theory is to keep drinks close to the spirit of the meal itself.
If I spent $50 on booze-friendly spices, what should I buy and how should I use them?
$50 is more than enough budget to fill out your drinking spice cabinet. Whole nutmeg is best for grating on top of a finished cocktail like punches or hot drinks. The Aleppo chili is indispensable for drinks that require a bit of heat. It has a milder spiciness so you can rim a glass with it or infuse a simple syrup to taste. If you’re making drinks that require some texture like Bloody Marys, you can just leave the chili in rather than strain it. Similarly, smoked paprika is great for Bloodies, but also for coating garnishes like tomato or celery for an aromatic flavor layer. On the quirkier end is Muntok white pepper from Indonesia, which has a beautiful fresh sort of heat. The guys at PDT are muddling three or four into a gin and vermouth drink right now. Be sure to strain well if crushing them so you don’t end up with pepper in your teeth. Lastly, whole juniper berries can be infused into light, herbaceous spirits or muddled into a drink like peppercorns.
If using any of these to make simple syrup, you can actually use less sugar because the spices often heighten and highlight sweetness. It may take some experimentation, but try using a ratio of 1:3/4 (water:sugar) when making simple syrup. Start by stirring the water and sugar over low heat and working in the spice pinch by pinch to see how much suits your taste.
I’m not a huge salt-around-the-rim type of drinker. What’s a good replacement to enhance a Margarita or a Michelada?
You can replace the salt rim with lime juice and ground celery seeds or ground jalapeños for a spicy kick. You can also grind dry cilantro leaves, coriander and a touch of cumin and apply it on the rim with lime juice. I like to maintain the flavor profiles of the country these drinks are from. And to me, cilantro, lime and cumin preserve the identity of Mexico. They’re savory, but sweet and acidic all at the same time—and all the sudden, salt is not so necessary.
I have a sh*tload of bay leaves. Can I use them in my cocktails?
Bay leaves are a fantastic spice. You can use them whole to infuse in spirits or grind them and use as a rim with a touch of salt and cayenne. A bay-flavored simple syrup is great and adds a warm note to drinks. It’s floral and slightly piney, but still has a sweet nose. Start by adding several leaves to a ratio of 1:3/4 (water:sugar) over low heat. If you want to infuse a spirit with the leaves, go for lighter spirits and pair a simple syrup with Eastern European or Middle Eastern spirits that have a tendency to be herbaceous with notes of fennel or anise. Bay also does well with Mediterranean flavors if you’re thinking about food pairings.
I love a good Negroni. Do you have any suggestions on how to spice it up—literally?
Cubeb pepper (or berries) would be an amazing spice for a Negroni. It grows from java and has a resiny pine note to it that works fantastically with citrus and bitter flavors, especially grapefruit. They can be muddled in the drink or ground and then sprinkled on a segment of grapefruit as a garnish.