Posted January 5, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Habanero Firewater – Drinking the Heat!

The New Firewater
Sweet, sour, and the occasional bitter. Even as the American cocktail enjoyed its post-Prohibition glory days, the world of the bartender lacked the distinctive zing of spice. Actually, it lacked anything that even resembled spice, unless you count the lonely Tabasco bottle trotted out for Sunday morning Bloody Marys. Classic cocktails used mostly sweet or neutral mixers to compliment (or cover) the taste of strong liquor, and bartenders tended to riff on those flavor notes when creating new variations.

Fast forward 30 years, though, and cocktail aficionados can enjoy the tastes of jalepeño, serrano, and habanero alongside the more traditional tonic, bitters, and lime. The recent resurgence in lounge and cocktail culture is taking place in a different culinary context among drinkers familiar with the gratifying burn of Mexican chiles and cayenne-enhanced Cajun dishes. So, as contemporary barkeeps tried their hands at reinterpreting the classics, they naturally gravitated toward the heat and flavor of hot chiles to satisfy an audience with high tolerances for pain and pepper.

Adding a little capsicum kick to traditional drinks seems to have caught on with the new cocktail patrons, especially in regions renowned for spicy cuisine. Around Austin, different bars and restaurants have developed signature drinks for those seeking a new twist on spiritual offerings. And judging from the current range of chile-enhanced cocktails, there’s more than one way to start a liquid fire.

The trend began, surprisingly enough, with the Russians and Swedes. Commercially produced pepper vodkas (Stolichnaya Pertsovka, Absolut Peppar) hit the U.S. market just in time to offer a bit of variety to the new martini crowd. Within a few years, the red-accented bottles became standard offerings along with other flavored spirits enhanced with tastes ranging from orange and lemon to black currant. Before long, theme bars in San Francisco and New York began to experiment with inventive combinations, using fresh fruits, herbs, and, of course, chiles.

Several local bartenders have taken to infusing their own liquors with hot peppers to achieve a more personalized alcoholic afterburn. In the infusion process, peppers soak in vodka or silver tequila for around two weeks, during which time the essential oils and flavors of the peppers permeate the liquor. The resulting mixture turns a tawny red/gold color, at which time the peppers are removed. The liquor is then used to add an extra kick in sipping shots or mixed drinks.

As one might expect, the beleaguered Austin outpost of Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe empire keeps a bar stocked with the potent pepper-infused vodka to complement their Southwestern chile-based cuisine. On any given night, skewers of discolored chiles soak in decorative jars in their trademark “Chile-Tini.” In the slightly sweaty stemware, the highly-spiced cocktail looks suspiciously like its mild-mannered counterpart — until, of course, the first sniff or sip. The mix of peppers used in the infusion changes from batch to batch (“We basically have our pick from the kitchen”), but our recent sampling possessed a pronounced smell of ancho and a potent habenero afterblast. The pepper burn wraps itself around the tongue and hangs on for a good long time, adding another layer of twitch to the usual high-octane martini experience. For the vodka impaired or martini-averse, the bartender will also add a splash of the infused vodka to flavor other mixed drinks, including margaritas made with their deep stable of tequilas. Likewise, the Coyote also offers two other infusions made with ginger and distinctively aromatic Meyer lemons.

A bit closer to the Capitol, Bertram’s restaurant began experimenting with its own infusions, choosing a tequila base over the more neutral-flavored vodka. Because of their more complex flavors, infused tequilas feature more interplay between the liquor’s natural spiciness and the infused essence than their vodka counterparts, making the infusions perfect for slow, pensive sipping. The initial batches tended toward the fruitier side (pineapple and citrus-infused versions) and even excursions into herb/spice combinations (a heady allspice/pepper basil mixture), but the real star combines spicy serrano peppers with the essence of lemon. The citrus and serrano flavors match perfectly, with just enough of each to complement the tequila’s bright taste. Bertram’s bar manager Chris Hightower developed these infusions after consulting with Lucinda Hutson, local agave maven and author of ¡Tequila! Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico (1995, Ten Speed Press). Over the past few months, Hightower refined the current infusions and will soon rotate new flavors through on a monthly basis.

Our nearly native agave also forms the base in Z-Tejas’ trademark drink, the Mint Jalepeño Margarita — specially designed, it seems, for drinkers who like just a little hot with their sweet. The burn in this libation comes from a peppered sweet syrup rather than flavored liquor. To achieve the desired taste and consistency, jalepeños and handfuls of fresh mint are simmered in a thick sugar syrup. The mixture is then drained and added to house margaritas on a per-order basis. The balance of flavors in this particular cocktail can vary radically depending on the customer’s knowledge of fluid dynamics. In frozen form, the chile/mint syrup tends to pool on the bottom of the glass. Translation: The first straw-assisted sip may get you can get more syrup than margarita. The jalepeño’s fire hits you full force, blowing the top of your head off and drowning out any hint of mint flavor. After the first few sips, you’re left with a regular margarita to cool your throat. If you want to make the pepper last longer, stir up from the bottom of the glass before imbibing. The burn may be less intense, but it gives the drink’s other tastes (tequila, lime, mint, and orange) a chance to express themselves leisurely.

On some occasions, however, a leisurely cocktail seems inappropriate. Sipping an hour-long martini or dawdling over a margarita may fit some evenings, but certain moods call for a double-barreled blast of alcoholic and capiscum-based intoxicants. Enter the Tattooed Canary, a simple shot served at Manuel’s on Congress. Small and unassuming from the outside, the Canary consists of straight Centinela Blanca tequila topped with a bright yellow dollop of mango/habanero purée. Despite its catchy name, waitstaff know the aftereffects of the drink and take pains to inform potential Canarians about the drink’s double whammy. After the standard “Do you like spicy foods?” interrogation, Manuel’s waiters sensibly suggest a beer or sweet chaser to accompany the little bird. You’ll need one.

The first taste to get your attention is (of course) the habanero, which sears the back of your throat and cauterizes the parts of the tongue normally used for speech. The initial burn then gives way to the clean, smooth bite of the tequila, and then the residual sweetness of mango coming in a distant third. The Canary is a bungee jump of a drink — inspiring either whoops of pleasure/pain or a few moments of silence as you regain your equilibrium. Immediately after kicking one back, faces stretch, heads shake, and eyes bulge. All in all, drinking a Tattooed Canary may be the quickest way to become a full-blown cartoon character.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog