Hot stuff: Pepper Jelly Cocktails

I’ve been mulling this idea ever since I ran across the Rose City Pepperheads stand at the fabulous greenmarket in Portland OR last year.  The vivid colors and amazing flavors of their pepper jellies  (Thai Mandarin!  Hawaiian Jalapeno!) practically scream “mix me into a cocktail.”

Of course, jam cocktails are nothing new. In fact, they’re rather old: In 1862, mixiologist Jerry Thomas included a guava jelly-spiked Barbados Punch in his Bartender’s Guide, and in 1930, The Savoy Cocktail Book included a gin-based Marmalade Cocktail. More recently, UK bartender Salvatore Calabrese created and popularized the Breakfast Martini, which incorporates marmalade along with gin and Cointreau.

But that’s not going to stop me from playing with the pepper-jelly palette. I found a medium-heat, bright red pepper jelly, which I thought might lend itself to a darker, whiskey-sour style cocktail.

A couple of thoughts for those also thinking of tinkering with pepper jelly cocktails:

Know thy jam. Read the ingredients list carefully — garlic? onion powder? Think twice before adding these to a cocktail. Vinegar? Ok, maybe, but you might need to dial down the citrus a bit, since vinegar is an acid too. Be sure to taste the jam first to gauge for sweetness — you might need to add agave nectar or simple syrup.

Don’t lump it. I posed this question to drinks experts who frequent the Mixoloseum, and they had some great advice.

#1: To avoid a drink with unappetizing lumps, before adding ice to the cocktail shaker, stir together the liquid ingredients with the jam, and use a spoon to smush out any remaining lumps. Then add ice and shake and strain as usual.

#2:  To avoid lumps, dissolve the jam in other liquid ingredients before adding the booze, then double-strain for bits of peel, unless you like ’em.

Hot Pepper Jelly Cocktail

1 heaping tablespoon pepper jelly (I used Four Monks medium Jalapeno Jelly)

2 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Spoon the pepper jelly into a cocktail shaker, and use the spoon to mash it against the sides of the shaker to break up any lumps. Add the Bourbon, and stir to dissolve the jelly. Add the lemon juice and ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass.

If you have a favorite jam-based cocktail, I’d love to hear about it!

P.S. What do you think of the photo? I’m actively trying to up my photography game.

What is a cocktail recipe?

Most food writers, recipe developers, and cookbook authors will agree that a recipe contains a few basic elements:

1. The full list of ingredients.

2. The advised proportions for said ingredients.

3. Instructions for combining and preparing the ingredients, including cooking instructions and suggested tools to use.

4. Instructions for presenting and serving the finished product, i.e. “ladle into a bowl,” or “garnish with mint sprigs.”

If I’d been hired to create a recipe (food or drink), and omitted any of the above elements, I’d be fired, and deservedly so. Anyone who has tried to successfully make a recipe with any of the above elements missing will also likely agree that all of these are critical elements — and the leading reasons that otherwise good recipes fail is because the instructions are unclear, incomplete, or key ingredients have been omitted.

It puzzles me that lately, when I’ve requested drink recipes from PR pros representing bars or restaurants, what I’ve received has been a description hurriedly skimmed from an online menu. For example (and I’m deliberately excising the name of the bar and the drink’s name, since it’s not the bar’s fault), the following to my request for a punch recipe:

Pisco, Lemon-grass Syrup, Fresh Lime Juice, Ginger Juice, and egg white. Dusted with Chai Green Tea and Angostura Bitters

This is not a recipe.

I suppose I could take this as a compliment, a suggestion that surely, I’m such an insider I’ll know how to piece this list together into a cocktail recipe.

No. Not even close. There’s a big difference between 1 ounce and 1 1/2 ounces of spirit, shaken or stirred or something else altogether. Do the first two ingredients need to be combined together first before the third is added? What of those ingredients commonly omitted from menu descriptions, but critical to a successful finished dish? In the food world, you’ll rarely see olive oil or seasonings listed on the menu, for example; in the drink world, that often applies to acid/citrus and sweeteners. In this case, lime is specified, but this is not always the case. Is that simple syrup a 1:1 or 1:2 sugar to water ratio? What type of sugar is used? And a common thorn in the side of drink recipe writers (and followers) is those custom-made ingredients, such as “house-made” bitters, tinctures, etc. Tell me how to make ginger juice and lemongrass syrup.

That doesn’t mean that every drink recipe has to be standardized to the point of boring. The earliest cocktail receipt writers were masters of descriptive language. More recently, I love Dave Wondrich’s drink descriptions, in which drinks are shaken “viciously” rather than merely shaken. It’s no coincidence that Wondrich has probably logged more time immersed in early drink recipes than any other living writer. But even the oldest and floweriest recipes still contained all the needed elements for a reader to successfully replicate the drinks. For example, consider the following, from Jerry Thomas:

Glasgow Punch

(From a recipe in the possession of Dr. Shelton Mackenzie.)

Melt lump-sugar in cold water, with the juice of a couple of lemons, passed through a fine hair-strainer. This is sherbet, and must be well mingled. Then add old Jamaica rum—one part of rum to five of sherbet. Cut a couple of limes in two, and run each section rapidly around the edge of the jug or bowl, and gently squeezing in some of the delicate acid. This done, the punch is made. Imbibe.

Is this a recipe? YES. It’s not the format we commonly use today, but it tells the reader about the ingredients, how much to use, and how to prepare and serve it (jug or bowl). And extra points to Mr. Thomas for giving credit to Dr. Shelton Mackenzie, rather than simply stealing the recipe, as so many would-be recipe writers do today.

Now here’s a second, more modern, and unorthodox format, a tweeted recipe. The source here is the Mixoloseum, an online chat board populated by amateur and professional cocktail geeks, who invariably know more about cocktails than I do. Okay, this punch recipe required two tweets, which I’m conflating, but still, it shows what can be accomplished in a streamlined format:

New Zealand Rum Punch: 1oz Coruba, 1oz Oronoco, 1oz grapefruit juice, 1oz Don’s Spices, .5oz lime juice, shake with ice and dump into a pint glass, top with soda water, garnish with a lime spiral (@cocktailnerd

Is this a recipe? YES.  Ingredients and proportions? check, check. Suggested prep? check. Presentation? check. And all in 140 characters or less (times two).

So once again, I’ll present the response I received to my request for a drink recipe:

Pisco, Lemon-grass Syrup, Fresh Lime Juice, Ginger Juice, and egg white. Dusted with Chai Green Tea and Angostura Bitters

and I’ll ask:  Is this a recipe?

I”d love to hear your thoughts.