Spicy cocktails rule the roost at 6th & La Brea Brewery in Los Angeles and are particularly popular at lunch.
But it’s not just there. From Maine to Washington, D.C., to the West Coast, spicy cocktails are enjoying some time in the (heat of the) sun.
The most popular brunch cocktail at 6th & La Brea is a Michelada: Yea We Have a Michelada, ($9) which includes Valentina (a regional Mexican spicy sauce commonly used for Micheladas in Mexican homes), roasted chipotle peppers, Tajin, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice, and Sumpin' Lite beer, or a beer of the guest’s choosing. IPAs are particularly popular since the hops lend themselves well to the spice, says beverage manager Angela Ryskiewicz.
Also popular is a Green Bloody Mary (St. George Green Chile Vodka, Ancho Reyes Verde, blended salsa verde, green juice made from kale, celery, cucumbers, and apples, and lime). A third drink is a traditional Bloody Mary (vodka, Valentina, roasted chipotle peppers, Tajin, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice). The drinks cost $13 and $12 respectively.
They’re popular at night but particularly at brunch, Ryskiewicz says. “I think brunch food lends itself very well to having a hair of a dog and that big greasy brunch food. It cuts through it really well.”
The drinks, she says, are definitely on the spicier side but she doesn’t intend to kill anyone’s palate. “I’m interested in building drinks to be balanced, and it’s important to temper it with other flavor profiles.” She keeps everything (such as the blended salsa) in bottles ready to go to mix these drinks during brunch service quickly.
Plus, she says, if she makes them too spicy, they become gimmicky and guests can typically only drink one, “which doesn’t lend itself well to consistent selling of cocktails.”
Overall, the most popular cocktail is Big Trouble in Little Oaxaca (mezcal, Amaro Angeleno, Ancho Reyes Verde, Chareau aloe liqueur, lime and sage, $14).
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Drinkers are really enjoying mezcal, tequila and spice right now, Ryskiewicz says. “And guests are more knowledgeable about ingredients and expect quality and complex flavors, so I think having something spicy lends itself to that. It’s a fun way to add complexity to a cocktail.”
Pushing Palates Forward
“People are drawn to pushing their palates in adventurous and new ways,” says Briana Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine. “We have a spicy drink—the Bonecrusher, with mezcal, lime, agave and red pepper, $14—that outpaces nearly every other drink on the menu, year round.”
Volk brings out the heat in a variety of ways, using Tabasco, infusions, a pinch of dried hot pepper. “Anything with capsaicin in it will do,” she points out. But she’s careful not to make cocktails too hot. “We often settle on a Goldilocks compromise of ‘just hot enough.’ For the guest that really wants a hit of heat, we can always add more.”
At Founding Farmers restaurants in Washington, D.C., three spicy cocktails do particularly well. The Spicy La Paloma (tequila, grapefruit, lime, agave, mezcal, and housemade chipotle syrup); The Bone (bourbon, lime and Tabasco, garnished with a bacon lolli, candied savory bacon); and The Clementine (clementine-and-chili-infused reposado tequila, Bénédictine, lime, pineapple, agave).
“Heat, when used properly, can add a good complexity and layer to a cocktail,” says Jon Arroyo, managing partner, beverage and distillery. “Often, heat can be overused or mixed with a spirit that doesn’t lend itself to it as well as some others—leaving, quite literally, a bad taste in people’s mouths. Control the heat, control the flavor, and you can have a really delicious beverage on your hands.”
Arroyo also has a variety of methods for producing the heat, ranging from Tabasco to his housemade chipotle syrup, which has a nice spicy smoke to it which really complements the tequila, he explains. And, for his clementine-and-chili tequila infusion, the spice and tequila complement each other well, he adds.
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These three spicy cocktails pair particularly well with a richer, more savory food. “The food needs to be able to stand up to the cocktail, and many spicy cocktails have a pretty strong personality,” Arroyo points out.
Smoke and Spice
“In the past few years, I’ve noticed a surge in a variety of different savory flavor profiles going into cocktails: herbaceous, smoky, bitter and spicy notes,” says Michael Garcia, bar manager at Santuari Restaurant in Toluca Lake, Calif. And surprisingly, he says, “people tend to lean more towards a spicy cocktail on warmer days. So, in a city like Los Angeles, which is fairly warm all year round, a spicy cocktail is key on any menu.”
He uses spice in different ways, he says. “We have two cocktails on our menu right now that are spicy. The first of them is the Cardinal—our version of a spicy blood orange Margarita. We incorporate the spice by creating a fresh cayenne chili infusion into the tequila. This gives the cocktail a strong and lasting spicy flavor from start to finish.”
The second spicy cocktail is the Red Crown, which includes a housemade ancho chili tincture, which also has smoky note “that plays very well off the mezcal in the drink but is balanced out by the sweet and fruity notes of pineapple,” Garcia says. “The great thing about using an ancho chili tincture is that you can add more or less to adjust the level of spiciness, whereas infusing the spirit with spice itself doesn’t give you that option.”
But Garcia is careful not to make the cocktails too hot, which, he says, “is when you can’t taste anything but the spice. Spice in cocktails should be approached the same as you would adding spice to a dish. You want to be able to feel the heat, but also be able to enjoy all the other wonderful flavors going on in the cocktail.”
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He recommends fatty foods like a piece of crispy pork belly or a dish with higher acidity like roasted veggies tossed in a vinaigrette to accompany spicy cocktails.