Spicy Spirits: Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper

Last week I attended a launch party for Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, a new extension to the SoCo brand, held at Neely’s BBQ Parlor. 

So how was it? Straight up, the flavor is on the sweet side (as is regular SoCo), and reminded me of Red-Hot candies, but it has a familar, vinegary Tabasco twang on the finish. I suspect this one will find a broad spectrum of drinkers. It’s not very spicy, it has just a hint of naughty sizzle, which nearly disappears when mixed into drinks.

It went down particularly easy mixed in the “Burnt Lemon” cocktail:  SoCo Pepper, turbinado sugar, and homemade lemonade, garnished with a candied lemon peel.

For me, the big surprise of the evening wasn’t the spirit — but rather, the discovery that Neely’s has a cigar cellar, which was dark and refreshingly chill after the crush of BBQ-hungry hordes upstairs. If I didn’t have dinner plans afterwards, I might have lingered to try the cigar-and-SoCo Pepper pairing offered.

I have to call out the soundtrack for the evening, too:  “Hot and Cold” by Katy Perry; “Burning Down the House” by The Talking Heads. “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer. Whoever put together the playlist sure had a lot of fun, and I stuck around for an extra drink just to see what song would come up next.

From Saveur: Boozy Hot Sauce

photo credit: Saveur

I was psyched to open the all-chef  edition of Saveur Magazine (Jan/Feb 2011) and spot, in big-ass, all capital letters:  “BOOZY HOT SAUCE,” with the accompanying photo at right.

This item, #25 on the “Saveur 100” list, was contributed by Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country Barbecue here in NY. She describes this as “homemade hot sauce,” but if you ask me, this is infused tequila. Karmel says:

“I buy a half pint –or sometimes a pint– of the best tequila that the liquor store sells and pour myself a shot or two. That leaves enough room to stuff the bottle with red-hot bird peppers, peppercorns, and just a few pods of cracked smoked black cardamom. I put the top back on, shake it, and let it sit for at least a week before I use it. The longer it sits, the more delicious it gets.”

The  full recipe is posted here, on Saveur’s website.  I say bravo for toasting the spices (note: the recipe says cumin and allspice berries, rather than cardamom pods) before adding them to the tequila, and again — bravo for enjoying a shot of the hooch straight up. But in my opinion, a weeklong steep might be a bit much, even with dried chile peppers.

Q&A with Mark Buettler of Brooklyn Hemispherical Sriracha Bitters

A few weeks ago, I interviewed bartender John Byrd, at The Bedford restaurant in Brooklyn — the same day that his “Wake Up, Doc” cocktail was featured in a Grub Street spread of vegetable cocktails. The secret ingredient in the drink? Brooklyn Hemispherical Sriracha Bitters. Now, I’m no stranger to sriracha in cocktails, nor to spicy bitters. But this was the first time I’d encountered both in the same product!

After a bit of wrangling, I arranged an interview with Mark Buettler, co-owner of Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. In addition to the Sriracha Bitters, he’s also on the cusp of releasing Black Mission Fig Bitters, Meyer Lemon Bitters, and other exciting flavors. 

A bit about Mark:  he was formerly head bartender at Dressler in Brooklyn, where John Byrd also worked, and where he met co-conspirator Jason Rowan, then a Dressler barfly.  Mark still “bartends all over town,” as he puts it, when not working for wine/liquor distributor Empire Merchants, or playing proud papa to a newborn baby.

Why bitters?

MB:  As a bartender, I focus on organic, homemade, and fresh. I started with making celery bitters. My first attempts were based on something found online — these days you can find anything you need or want online.

Why sriracha?

MB:  I love sriracha. I had visited Thailand maybe 2-3 years ago, and spent a little over a month in Thailand with my then-girlfriend, now wife.  Sriracha originates from a small town named Sriracha. There’s nothing like tasting where it originates. You know sriracha – the bottles here with the green top and rooster.

I talked to some people over there to learn how to make sriracha. The ingredients are chile, garlic, vinegar, sugar, water, maybe a little variation here or there. Pretty straightforward. I’ve been taking some traditional recipes people were willing to share, some research online, and then marrying them together and coming up with my own in my apartment here. It’s a pretty simple process.

So how do you make sriracha bitters?

MB:  First I make the base bitters – I take the barks and herbs, and just throw them in there. As I started playing around with flavors, I found that I had more control over the taste of it if I started with base bitters & brewed it first for several weeks. From there, adding flavor was secondary. I let it steep in there after I strain out the other ingredients. You get more pure expression. Then you’re not dealing with the bitters still brewing with barks and herbs and getting stronger.

So the bitters brew three weeks. I strain them. Then I make the sriracha and let it sit and mingle and the flavors become one. You get the pepper heat and flavor in the bitters that way. You have to add a lot.

How did you know when you got it right?

MB:  I kept bringing John Byrd the samples. We found you have to make it VERY hot, and add a bunch of sriracha to it.  Since you only add a few drops of bitters here or there to a drink, maybe ¼ teaspoon, not much more, the heat needs to be extra concentrated.

For a few weeks I had a tongue that was constantly numb and on fire. I had to bring it to John,  saying “I blew my taste buds out, I can’t taste anything.” When I thought they were too fiery and hot they were perfect for a drink. It needs to be very potent for it to affect the taste profile of your drink.

Many lost taste buds later… we had the sriracha bitters down.

How do you use sriracha bitters in a cocktail?

MB:  Being part of the food industry for many years, I’ve noticed more people experimenting with heat and spice in food, and embracing it more. That was not the case 5-10 years ago, not as much as it is these days. Which is one of the reasons I thought it would be fun to do these bitters. 

Thus far, we’ve experimented with using them in traditional drinks and riffs on traditional drinks that would already have bitters. Warmer liquors that would hold up to heat & take that flavor –whiskey, bourbon, rye – were our natural first go-to. We developed a Sazerac called the “Sriracha-rac.” It seemed like it would work in theory, and it turned out beautifully, with the sugar, and little bit of acid/oils from the lemon. It’s also a natural with tequila – we did a riff on the Paloma with the bitters.

It gives a fun, earthy, subtle hint of spice in the background. I’m excited to get it out there in the hands of other bartenders so they can do things I never thought of.

So how do we get our hands on a bottle of those Sriracha Bitters?

MB:  We’re still fledgling. I can be contacted directly through the Brooklyn Barman site. I can also be contacted at www.brooklynbitters.com. We’ll have a Paypal link up and order form in the next few weeks. I‘m looking forward to getting it to the bartending community. What’s most important to us is keeping things local and seasonal.  The bitters are made in Brooklyn, and as much as possible the ingredients ae sourced in Brooklyn.

Anything else spicy in the works?

MB:  We’re working with a restaurant opening in Greenpoint that has their own spicy rub for meat, which they’re looking to work into bitters. Spicy, but also savory. I think they’ll be called “Carne Asada Bitters.”  It won’t be made with meat, but it will have an earthy, meaty flavor.

Ever thought of making Bacon Bitters?

MB:  Bacon Bitters!!  Well, I am now.

Tales Preview: Spirited Dinners, Spicy Cocktails

Tales of the Cocktail is just one week away!  Already my mind is in New Orleans.

One of last year’s highlights was the tiki-themed Spirited Dinner. This year, I’ve already reserved my spot for RioMar. (holler if you’ll be there too!)  In browsing through the options, I’m delighted by the bold cocktail choices dotting the menus, such as:

Gabriel’s Share (@ Bacco): Cognac, Sauternes, black peppercorns, sweet cherries  (Quite a few peppercorn-spiked cocktails on the menus this year!)

Ocam’s Second Thought (@Boucherie) Bols Genever, Domaine de Canton, Trader Tiki vanilla syrup, Thai chile pepper

Pop (@Coquette) celery soda, vodka, Louisana hot sauce, lemon juice & peel, celery seeds

Paulina Meat Market Cooler (@Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse) Meat-infused cachaca, roasted chipotle pepper, agave nectar, fresh watermelon juice, lime juice

And yes, that only takes me to “D” in the list of restaurants, which should give an indication of how many other fabulous spicy cocktails are available if you make it through the entire list. Go ahead, make a reservation. You know you want to.

Drink recipe: New Orleans Bloody Mary

 More Bloody Marys to make bloody merry over!  This one is courtesy of “Cockail Guru” Jonathan Pogash, who made the drink on TV over the weekend. (Watch it here )

A few special touches make this version really interesting: 

1. the main spirit used is absinthe, not tequila or vodka, and it’s relatively light on the tomato juice, plus a good dose of lime juice instead of the lemon that brightens most Bloodies. I haven’t yet tried it, but it sounds like  a refreshing twist.

2. this drink is not for instant gratification freaks. Jon adds savory extras like salt & pepper, horseradish, and Tabasco, and then lets it meld for a full 24 hours

3. Then — and only then! — he pours it over ice and garnishes with something smoky and pickled, like okra.

New Orleans Bloody Mary (by Jonathan Pogash)

(serves 1)

1 oz. LUCID Absinthe

2 oz. Tomato juice

1 pinch black pepper

1 pinch horseradish sauce

1 dash Tabasco hot sauce

3 dashes Worcestershire sauce

1 dash kosher salt

1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

Directions: Combine ingredients and marinate for 24 hrs.  Then pour over ice into tall glass.

Garnish: Rick’s Picks “Smokra” pickled okra (or any other pickled vegetable)

Winner of The Bloody Mary Olympics

Mary on the Piste (photo courtesy of thepublican.com)

I’ve been on a Bloody Mary kick lately. Can you blame me? They used to be among my least-favorite drinks on the spicy spectrum, because too often they serve as an un-subtle tomato juice delivery system for booze. But recently they’ve been adopted as a wonderful canvas for exciting flavors and innovation. 

And so it was with great delight that I stumbled upon an account of a Bloody Mary Olympics held in London about a month ago. 

The rules:  entrants were given a dazzling and slightly nutty range of ingredients to work with, such as beetroot juice, Guinness, paprika, wasabi and roast garlic cloves. They were expected to pair the drinks with bar snacks ranging from filo pastry lollipops to popcorn crayfish marinated in vodka to corned beef hash. And each drink had to include a shot of Absolut, the spirits company sponsoring the event (grand prize was a trip to the Absolut Academy in Sweden). 

Here’s the winning drink, which I am translating into Americanized measurements.  (Speaking of translation, I had to look up “on the piste.” It’s a ski slope reference. I was concerned it might be crude menstrual cycle slang, considering the drink category and the British propensity for puns. I’m already sorry that I brought this up. Moving on…)

The cocktail was served with a frozen celery stick dipped in horseradish snow (similar to an ice cream, it melts slowly into the cocktail as you drink it).  And the accompanying snack was corned beef hash cakes and piccalilli (kind of a chopped tomato relish).

Although I don’t see any instructions for making “horseradish snow,” my best guess  is to mix together crushed ice with prepared white horseradish or grated fresh horseradish.

Mary on the piste

3 1/2 ounces tomato juice

1 1/4 ounce Absolut Peppar (or I suggest making your own jalapeno-infused vodka)

1/2 ounce dry sherry

Juice of half a lime

4 dashes of Lea and Perrins

2 dashes of Tabasco

1/2 tsp of Bovril diluted 1/10  (Yanks – try beef bouillion as a substitute)

Celery salt

Freshly ground pepper

Mix together and pour over ice in a 10oz glass. Make horseradish snow & spread on half a celery stick to garnish. (These are frozen & great for summer!) Serve with corned brisket of beef hash cakes with mustard and piccalilli.

Scenes from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (#MCC)

Greetings from Hangover Central the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a multi-day fete celebrating cocktail culture.  The event is only at the halfway point, but already I’ve got some photos and stories to share.

For me, the main event was “The Spirited Whey,” yesterday’s seminar on Monk-Inspired Cocktails & Cheeses, which I co-presented with cheese expert Diana Pittet. I’ll have more on this soon, but I’m happy to report that the room was filled to capacity, all the spirits and cheeses arrived (plus some last-minute surprise add-ons), and we’ve been getting lovely feedback that the audience had a good time. (whew!)  

But a quick story:  For “The Spirited Whey,” we had hunted for a great cocktail that showcased two particular liqueurs with monastic heritage:  Benedictine and Chartreuse. We found one in the Monte Cassino, Damon Dyer’s award-winning drink crafted for Benedictine’s recent 500th anniversary event.  It’s a lovely drink made with rye, Benedictine, yellow chartreuse, and loads of lemon. And yesterday, minutes before our presentation, I spotted it on the bar menu at Astor Center, ground zero for most of the MCC events.

So I ordered one and introduced myself, (yep, it was Damon behind the bar!) and explained that we were about to feature his drink. What impressed him most:  Diana had done the research to figure out the meaning of the drink’s name (it’s a the name of a monastery).  He later popped into our seminar to talk about how he came up with the drink.

Damon Dyer in action, making a Monte Cassino

The finished Monte Cassino

Other highlights:  The “Hotel Bars” panel hosted by Elayne Duke.

Charlotte Voisey demonstrates how to "throw" a drink.

My favorite drink from the session: The Black Cherry Sling, from Bemelmans Bar (The Carlyle)

And of course, you know I woudn’t miss Tad Carducci’s seminar on Spice:  The Fennel Frontier.

The drink with the hottest profile was the Little Market, made with tequila, guajillo chile syrup pineaple, Yucateca green habanero sauce, and a pico piquin (chile salt mixture) rim for “extra depth and heat.”

Hot Stuff! The "Little Market" cocktail

But my personal favorite was the Masalarinha (a riff on the caipiriha), made with cachaca, fresh lime, Garam Masala syrup, and garnished with a cinnamon-dusted wedge of pineapple. (I need to add this to my list of curry-spiked cocktails.)

The Masalarinha

Diana relaxes with a full line-up of drinks from the Spice seminar (ok, they're not ALL hers!)

Drink recipe: Brazillionaire (sriracha cocktail alert!)

I’m seeing sriracha — that fabulous “Rooster sauce” — in more and more cocktails.

What’s funny is that at first, I had assumed that sriracha was too thick and ketchup-like to lend itself to a drink. But I was advised by a bartender friend to use a light touch, adding just a couple of drops at most, which then could be dissolved with a good vigorous shake.

Congrats to bartender Tobin Ellis on his award-winning, sriracha-spiked  libation – recipe below!

Brazillionaire
1 1/2 oz. Leblon Cachaça
3/4 oz. Cherry Heering
1 oz. passion fruit purée
1 1/2 oz. fresh lime sour
8-10 fresh cilantro leaves
2 drops sriracha sauce

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing glass and shake well with ice. Strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with 2 speared Marasca cherries.

P.S. (added 4/19)  I need to take a moment to curtsey in the general direction of Andrea Lynn, who made her own sriracha sauce and chronicled it in her “Serious Heat” column on Serious Eats. Andrea, who is also my editor over at Chile Pepper magazine, is clearly not a woman to be trifled with. Anyone willing to play with one pound (!) of cayenne chiles plus another five Thai chiles — well, that’s some major DIY chops. Check out her recipe here.

Cochon Bloody Mary w/ pork jus

It’s been an afternoon of discoveries. I’m not sure which is most stunning:

1. The fact that a magazine called Garden & Gun actually exists.

2. The fact that despite the backwater-sounding title, it’s a beautiful-looking publication. It’s even an ASME National Magazine Award finalist, going up against the likes of Martha Stewart’s publications and The New Yorker.

3. The fact that it’s featuring one of the most mouth-watering Bloody Mary recipes I’ve ever read, from celebrated New Orleans Cajun haven Cochon. In addition to the usual suspects, it includes pork jus, okra brine, Crystal hot sauce, and a good dose of grainy mustard.  I can’t help myself. Here’s the recipe, as posted on the Garden & Gun “Talk of the South” blog.

photo credit: Chris Granger

Cochon Bloody Mary
(yields 10–12 servings)

1 can V8 (46 oz.)
2 tbsp. finely ground black pepper
2 tbsp. whole grain mustard
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1.5 oz. pork jus
1.5 oz. lime juice
2.5 oz. lemon juice
3.5 oz. hot sauce (preferably Crystal brand)
2 oz. green hot sauce
1.5 oz. red wine vinegar
1 oz. olive juice
1.5 oz. okra juice (the brine from a jar of pickled okra)
vodka of choice

Mix it up: Combine everything in a pitcher—except vodka—and stir. To serve: Fill glass with ice. Add about 2 ounces of vodka. Fill with Bloody Mary mixture. Stir, garnish with pickled okra and a stalk of celery, and serve. The mixture can be made ahead of time and kept in a sealed pitcher for up to a week.

Why didn’t I think of these spicy cocktail ideas?

A “pani puri margarita”? Chipotle and Lillet? Blackberry syrup and Tabasco?  Good ideas all, and not a single one mine.

Photo credit: Flickr/A30_Tsiitika

I was psyched to read a write-up of Spice & Ice  (or rather, a write-up of the WaPo’s write-up) in the widely-read Serious Eats blog (Serious Cocktails:  Adding Spice to Your Drinks).  But what really grabbed my attention was the Comments section – one fabulous spicy drink idea after another. Pow, pow, pow!  A quick sampling:

From laetitiae:  a friend makes the most delicious jalapeno lemonade. The spice and tart and sweet all blend together in beautiful, beautiful harmony in that drink.

From nickiter:  a dash of Tabasco mixed into a glass of Four Roses bourbon. You can’t taste it, but you can feel the warmth of it.

From TravelEatDrink, who also helpfully provided a link to a recipe for this treat:  Doesn’t get better than homemade jalapeno, cucumber, mint infused vodka with soda and a slice of lemon. (http://tinyurl.com/ye35dew)

From MikeK:  Vermilion in Chicago does a “Pani Puri Margarita” that is delicious

From nomenclature: One night a few were in the (communal) kitchen concocting these shots involving vodka, a splash of blackberry syrup and a dash or a few of tabasco. They were surprisingly good. A nice sweetness followed by the burn of the heat.

Of course, this is only a sampling of the ideas – but you can read all of them at the end of the Serious Cocktails blog post.

It’s good to be reminded every now and then that I don’t know everything about spicy cocktails – that there is still so much to learn, that someone out there may be creating something new and fabulous right this very second. Just don’t remind me too often, okay? (I’m kidding about that last part- send along new ideas, anytime!)