A bit of Tequila turns Jer-ne's spicy watermelon soup into a Spicy Watermelon Margarita Shot.
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Swizzle Sizzle

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2008

To turn up the heat of palate tingling cocktails, mix masters are rifling the pantry.

Since its creation at Harry's New York Bar in Paris by Fernand Petiot in 1921, the Bloody Mary has enjoyed a near monopoly on spicy drinks and hangover helpers, if not matutinal sipping entirely. But now, nearly a century after the first American appearance of this vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire, and hot sauce concoction at the King Cole Bar in New York City's St. Regis Hotel, the ranks of savory cocktails have swelled, and the long smoldering ember of the Bloody Mary has ignited an all out conflagration of drinks inflamed with hot sauce, horseradish, ginger, and exotic peppers.

Ironically, adding peppery heat to a cocktail actually puts back the alcohol burn reduced by chilling and diluting with ice: The burning sensation of a shot of Bourbon results when ethanol triggers the same polymodal pain receptors in our mouths and noses that respond to capsaicin in chiles. However, spicy drinks are about more than mouth-searing heat. The real rush comes from fusing flavors.

At Vong's Thai Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's contribution to Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, the Lychee Bomb cocktail includes simple syrup infused with about 1/2 cup of hot chiles to 1 gallon of syrup. "We have to adjust the syrup seasonally," says manager Erin Waldron. "From using chilies in the kitchen, we have become aware that they peak in February and April and can become extremely hot." To counter the heat, 1 oz. of Thai chile simple syrup is combined with 2 muddled lychees, cilantro, and 2 1/2 oz. Asian pear sake in a rocks glass with ice. "It is our most adventurous cocktail, but it does well because Asian flavors have become so mainstream. Look at how kids eat Thai food and sushi like their parents ate hamburgers and milk shakes," Waldron says.

Other spicy drinks also borrow from the kitchen, such as the Bloodless Bloody Mary, created by Jason Lara for Citrus at Social located in the Hollywood Athletic Club, which was inspired by a spicy gazpacho consommé created by consulting chef Michelle Bernstein as a companion to crab cakes. Once the kitchen's work of clarifying is done, Lara combines 4 oz. of the consommé with 2 oz. Imperia vodka, 2 to 3 jalapeño slices, 1/2 oz. black pepper, and the juice of 1 lemon wedge in his cocktail shaker. It is then shaken vigorously and strained into an ice filled cocktail glass, using a micro-strainer. The traditional celery garnish endures. Like its more traditional red hued counterpart, the Bloodless Bloody's temperature can be adjusted. "I grew up in a Mexican family, and the jalapeño seeds were a no-no unless you wanted to burn your tongue. On request, we add the seeds to the shaker which gives the drink additional flavor and heat," Lara says.

Mixologist Mojmu Hoque similarly relies on jalapeños to add spice to his Swing de Paris cocktail for Django restaurant in New York City. Hoque says the cocktail was inspired by flavors from his childhood in Bangladesh: "On hot days we cooled off with slices of fresh grapefruit on which we sprinkled fresh coriander leaves and a little bit of fresh chile." For the adult incarnation, he muddles 1/4 of a peeled grapefruit and 3 sprigs of cilantro in a mixing glass. After adding 2 oz. Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka, a 1/2" slice of jalapeño, 3/4 oz. Cointreau, 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice, and 1/2 oz. simple syrup, he shakes the drink and strains it into a chilled cocktail glass. "As an aperitif, its herbal, vegetal, citrusy, and spicy elements open up the palate," says Hoque.

Rather than jalapeño, Kareem Zarwi, partner at La Cofradia in Coral Gables, Florida, reaches for an ají limo chile to create its eponymous cocktail. "The ají limo is the inspiration for the drink. We use it in many dishes for its intense spice and incredible flavor. The aroma is unique, very floral and herbaceous," says Zarwi, who combines 1 1/2 oz. Leblon cachaça, 3/4 oz. simple syrup, 1 oz. fresh lime juice, 1/2 tsp. sliced ginger, and three sprigs of thyme with 1/3 inch of sliced ají limo. After shaking with ice, the Ají Limo cocktail is strained into an old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice and garnished with an ají limo pierced with a sprig of thyme. The drink is popular with La Cofradia's Peruvian seviche, such as lemon Sole tiradito dressed with Peruvian yellow chiles and mandarin cream sauce. "You do have to be careful with the stuff," says Zarwi, of the zingy chiles. "But for people who like heat, they're a jolt of lightning. For me, chiles get me going and keep me motivated."

Like so many fiery foods, the story of the Bon Om Tuk cocktail at progressive Cambodian restaurant Kampuchea in New York City begins with a dare. Actually it's more of a hazing: New staff are required to eat a partially formed egg—a traditional Cambodian delicacy—as well as a spoonful of katiev—Cambodian chile paste offered as a garnish and used in soups at Kampuchea—according to partner Ratha Chau.

The Kampuchea kitchen provides the katiev for this cocktail by combining 1 large tomatillo, 10 whole Thai chiles, 1/8 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. sugar in the blender. Behind the bar, a mere 1/4 tsp. of the chile paste is nicely tempered by muddling it with 1 Tbsp. brown sugar, 1 oz. lime juice, 2 lime wedges, a pinch of salt, and a dash of honey syrup in a mixing glass. Next, 2 oz. cachaça and ice are added, then the cocktail is shaken and poured into a rocks glass before being topped with club soda. The Bon Om Tuk takes its name from the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh. "This drink means a lot to me. It is a tribute to the bloodline of my country, so it is the best and the most unique drink on the menu," says Chau.

Ryan Magarian, founder of Liquid Relations, a Seattle-based cocktail consulting company, created the 24 "Carrot" Wasabi for Katsuya by Starck, with locations in Los Angeles and Hollywood. "It's one of the most exciting drinks I've ever come up with," says Magarian. "Horseradish is one of my favorite flavors. People are expecting to find raspberry and lemon in a drink, but you throw a curveball with chile or horseradish and it stops them. It takes the drink beyond alcohol delivery." Begin with a pint glass 1/3 full of loose mint. Add 1 1/2 oz. horseradish infused vodka, 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice, 3 oz. fresh carrot juice, and 1/4 oz. clover honey syrup (2 parts honey to 1 part water). Muddle together, add ice, shake, and serve up, garnished with a floating mint leaf and 24k gold flakes.

Magarian, who also dabbles with chiles, says such spicy drinks are an extension of Katsuya's food flavors and provide a perfect contrast to sushi. "For me, having a spicy drink balanced with a cool piece of sashimi is turning traditional pairing on its head, manipulating heat and temperatures to get people thinking," he says.

Joshua Hasho, sous chef at Jer-ne Restaurant and Bar located in The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, can be credited with creating the soup that eats like a shot. To make his Sweet & Spicy Watermelon Soup, Hasho begins by juicing one basketball-sized watermelon. In a large pot he then combines 4 star anise, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup honey, 1/2 bottle dry rosé wine, and 3 Tbsps. sriracha (a Thai sauce made from chiles, salt, sugar, and vinegar). After cooking the combined ingredients over low heat he removes the spices. He allows the mixture to cool, then adds the watermelon juice, remaining half bottle of rosé, and finishes with salt and honey. To create the Spicy Watermelon Margarita Shot, bartender Fran Adams simply shakes the chilled soup with ice and an all agave blanco Tequila. "I like to add less than 1 oz. of Tequila to about 3 oz. of the soup. Even with the heat, there is just something so lovely and innocent about the watermelon," says Adams. The shot is served at functions in a small glass bowl, with both a spoon and a straw.

The Amante Picante, created by master mixologist Francesco Lafranconi may be the closest thing to a modern classic among spicy drinks. The drink, featuring a contrast of classic hot and cool flavors, appears on lists at Yew Restaurant and Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and also at Bar 888 at the InterContinental Hotel San Francisco. Helen Roy, bar manager at Bar 888 makes her rendition of the drink by muddling together 2 oz. Don Julio Silver Tequila, 1 oz. fresh lime juice, 1 1/4 oz. organic agave nectar, 2 sprigs cilantro, 1 thin slice cucumber, and several dashes of Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce. It's then shaken vigorously with ice, strained into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a slice of cucumber.

"The green hot sauce seems to be a little bit softer than the red. It also has some great acidity and adds a pretty pale green hue to the drink as well," says Roy. Cucumbers, cilantro, and sweetness act as traditional foils for spice. "The agave nectar adds a little hint of honey-like sweetness, the lime a fresh, crisp quality, and the cilantro a warm, waxy green quality," extols Roy.

With Bar 888 and Yew Restaurant as modern-era King Cole Bar and Harry's New York, who knows how far this spicy lover may travel. The Amante Picante could be the next spicy drink to defy the odds.