Playing with pepper (and vodka)

 You might already know (or suspect) my fondness for peppercorn cocktails. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive a box containing a bottle of Karlsson’s Vodka, along with a Karlsson’s-branded bottle of black peppercorns.

I had to ask, what was the connection between vodka and pepper?

“The inspiration came from the founder, Peter Ekelund, who was accustomed to eating the potatoes with black pepper,” the PR rep explained. “After developing the vodka, he was inspired to try it on the rocks with some black pepper, thus creating their signature drink, the Black Gold.” More specifically, vodka with a grind of black pepper.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of ground black pepper in drinks — it makes for an unpleasantly gritty texture. But I tried my own variation (above) — vodka shaken with ice and whole peppercorns. It livened up the sweet vodka with a bit of peppery zing, but made it easy to leave the pepper at the bottom of the glass.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Spiced Rum

The August 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Spiced Rum.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. Spiced rum has a bad reputation. It’s fun. It can be too sweet. You knew someone in college who tossed back too many Captain-and-Cokes. But that doesn’t stop many from taking spiced rum very seriously.  Maybe too seriously. 

2. Dry vs. sweet spiced rums. I didn’t realize there were different styles until I started tasting. But it’s a rather pronounced difference, and the “dry style” spiced rums were particularly nuanced and delicious.

3. Spiced rum is made with actual spices. Not just flavorings. Vanilla is perhaps the most commonly found spice. However, cocktail geeks mostly  disapprove of “vanilla-forward” rums. Taste thoughtfully, and you may detect spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Ginger and black pepper also may appear. One particularly spicy Cajun brand also used cayenne pepper.

4. Spiced rum is not part of the classic cocktail canon. Old school tiki bars would make their own. Some newfangled tiki lounges still do. (I’m lookin’ at you, Martin Cate!)

5. How to use spiced rum in cocktails. Tiki driks. Hot drinks like spiced cider. The Cable Car is a new classic. In other words, spiced rum is more versatile than I had thought. Check out some drink recipes here.

If you have a favorite spiced rum or cocktail made with spiced rum, I’d love to hear about it!

Spicy spirits: DragonBleu flavored vodkas

I’m always on the lookout for new spicy spirits, and these appeared on my doorstep one day, French vodkas made by a Cognac distiller, each one infused with agave nectar and a little something extra.  (There’s an unflavored version too, but we’re all about the bold flavors here.)  At first, I thought they might be made from grapes, but nope, it’s a grain-based vodka.  Here’s the assessment:

DragonBleu White Ginger Vodka:  It’s slightly cloudy in the glass, and has a true but relatively mild ginger scent. The spirit has a good ginger zing on top of the agave sweetness, and finishes surprisingly smooth. It had a slight bitter aftertaste, but overall I like it and I think others would too. I want to mix it with pineapple juice & make tiki-style drinks.

Final verdict:  Very nice. Get some. Make tiki drinks.

DragonBleu Penja Pepper Vodka:  Okay, so my first question was, what the heck is a Penja pepper? The label doesn’t really tell you, so I looked it up:  peppercorns from the Penja Valley of Cameroon – black, white, or green. 

The vodka had an earthy flavor, with a mild black pepper/pink pepper burn in the back of the throat, which lingers there. (I may have just interpreted white peppercorn as pink because the sweetness from the agave).  It takes a couple of sips for the peppery heat to build, but it’s not a harsh heat, it’s about medium heat.

Final verdict:  Medium heat. Could be interesting in fruity drinks, like a Cosmo variation.  I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it.

DragonBleu Rose Blossom Vodka:  Floral flavors are tough to do. Too much, and you imagine you’re drinking perfume or soap – bleech!  So this one is a pleasant surprise. Just a faint rosewater fragrance, and an equally delicate floral taste manned up by peppery notes on the finish. There’s that now-familiar agave sweetness. Mixed with say, grapefruit and cranberry juice to cut some of the perfuminess, this would go down easy. I wanted to add a splash of rye whiskey too, to rough up the edges a bit.

Final verdict:  Chileheads will hate this, unless they muddle a few slices of Serrano in there first. But a good choice for those who appreciate floral flavors.

Spicy Spirits: Belvedere Bloody Mary

I’m a sucker for hotel bars with history. So of course I couldn’t resist an invitation to a spirits preview event at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, where the Bloody Mary was born — and where 5,000 Bloodies are served each week.

The spirit in question was Belvedere Bloody Mary, which will launch nationwide in April. Truth is, I know of a gazillion Bloody Mary mixes, where the instructions are “just add vodka” (or tequila, or other alcohol of choice). But this is the first spirit I know of where the flavoring is within the vodka, and the instructions are “just add tomato juice.”

Clare Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology for Belvedere (she was a brand ambassador before the term became ubiquitious) was on hand to explain how the product was made:  each flavored ingredient is distilled separately, and then the flavored vodkas are blended together. So the Bloody Mary includes seven different distillations:  fresh tomato, black pepper, horseradish, bell pepper, chile pepper, lemon, and vinegar.

According to Smith, the bottled blend is “recipe #37,” and over 200 flavor combinations were tried. The winning recipe includes equal parts black pepper and horseradish, and roughly 0.1% vinegar distillate, which “mimicks freshness without the hit of heat Tabasco would bring.”

Some of the flavors that were tried but discarded included habanero peppers, birds-eye chiles, green peppers, garlic, sundried tomato, and onion.

“The onion was nice on the nose, but it tasted awful,” Smith confided. “It was like the taste of onions the day after you’ve eaten them.”  Gross.  Thanks for sparing us that particular flavor. But knowing that all those flavors are in the Belvedere bank, I’m curious as to what blend might be released next.

So how was it? The finished vodka is clear — not red — which was a shrewd decision, since it can be blended into other drinks.  Tasting the vodka straight, it has a distinct black pepper aroma, with warm hint of  fresh tomato essence. On the tongue, it’s sweet, with a sharp, tangy finish (I presume that’s the vinegar/horseradish note), and a soft feel.

I also tried the Belvedere Bloody Mary cocktail (that’s it in the photo above) made with the vodka, tomato juice, Merlot, lemon juice, Tabasco, and a touch of salt. It’s a slam dunk in the drink — as it ought to be — and although I prefer my Bloodies with a bit more heat, the vodka surely should make for idiot-proof Bloody Marys at hangover brunches galore. (“It’s awful that the drink is relegated to one you drink when you feel terrible,” Smith said. I concur.)

I also tried the Belvedere Spiced Island Daiquri (Bloody Mary vodka, fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup, a touch of smoked paprika). Unfortunately, this drink didn’t work as well — the black pepper and an odd vegetal twang come through where you don’t really want it.

Now, here’s the drink I would have preferred to try:  Smith recommended a dirty martini with a lemon twist. I can easily imagine that — super well-chilled, served with a briny/savory snack like smoked salmon on toast. Now that sounds like an appealing drink to me.

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.

DIY Spiced Rum

I’ve had spiced rum on the brain ever since I wrote about the new crop of rums for “Talk Like A Pirate Day.”  And I’ve been planning to experiment and mix up a few batches but just haven’t found the time.

Turns out, Paul Clarke beat me to the punch, with his Serious Eats post on How To Make Spiced Rum From Scratch. In the article, he notes the importance of selecting the right rum to infuse — he recommends “something with a good, aged richness to it,” (I agree) and recommends Appleton Estate Extra, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Matusalem Gran Reserva. 

He also warns that vanilla can overpower some spiced rums — which seems to be the chief complaint about the current crop of spiced rums. Personally, I find those vanilla notes pleasing, but certainly it’s more interesting when the rum shows pops of cinnamon, allspice, or clove.

Paul Clarke’s Spiced Rum  

  • 1 750ml bottle decent aged rum
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 5 whole allspice berries
  • 5 whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 piece star anise
  • 1/8 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg
  • 3 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger
  • 2 3-inch strips fresh orange zest, white pith removed

Combine everything in a large jar and seal. Keep in a cool, dark place for a couple of days, shaking it once a day to distribute the ingredients. Start tasting it after 48 hours; adjust ingredients if necessary, and once you feel it’s done (probably no longer than 4 days altogether), strain and bottle.

In the past, I’ve also tried the following spiced rum recipe — it’s unorthodoxly fruity, intense, and loosely based on a house-made version that was served at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley bar a few years back, where the rum was shaken with Cointreau and raspberry puree.

Autumn Spiced Rum

  • 1 750 ml bottle gold rum
  • 1/2 Fuji apple, diced
  • 5 pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into coin-sized slices
  • 1 dried fig
  • 1 piece of orange peel
  • 1 Tablespoon of black peppercorns, crushed

Add all the spices to the rum, close, and let steep 24 hours, or as long as one week. Strain out the fruit and spices and cover tightly. Use in your favorite rum-based cocktails.

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.

Not the same old grind: Peppercorn Cocktails

I’m honored that my “Peppered Poire” drink is a winner of the Pear Panache cocktail contest, and will be featured all this month on the USA Pears web site.

However, this drink comes with a dirty secret:  There’s a Peppered Poire cocktail in the Spice & Ice book, but… it’s not the same as the Pear Panache winner.

Don’t get me wrong — like all the drinks in the book, it was tested, I love it, and I stand behind it.  However, long after the Spice & Ice book had gone to press, Chile Pepper magazine assigned me a story on peppercorn cocktails (and yes, I’m quite aware that this is the delightful kind of piece that would ONLY be assigned by Chile Pepper!).

That piece included a recipe for the Black Pepper Gin Rickey, created by Justin Guthrie, bar manager at Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C. His wonderfully piquant drink took first-place honors at a regional Craft Bartenders Guild competition. It’s a complicated drink, which involved building a house-made black pepper-lime soda to add flavor and fizz to a classic rickey. And to make that soda water, Guthrie first brewed a simple syrup infused with black peppercorns and hot red pepper flakes.

When I saw that syrup, that was my “a-ha” moment. The original Spice & Ice recipe got the pepper in by shaking freshly-cracked black peppercorns with the drink. It was a perfectly serviceable technique, as long as those crunchy little peppercorns were strained out– I even had to add a line in the recipe advising to watch out for those stray little tooth-crackers.

But the simple syrup was brilliant – it was even hotter than the original recipe thanks to the red pepper flakes, and all the solids are strained out after the steep. Of course, adding simple syrup made the drink way sweeter, so I had to adjust some of the other ingredients to balance things out. Here is the final, award-winning (!) result.

Makes one drink

The Peppered Poire

Black Pepper Simple Syrup
1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar

The Peppered Poire Cocktail
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Poire William or similar pear-flavored liqueur
1/4 ounce fresh Bartlett pear puree
1/2 ounce black pepper simple syrup
Sparkling wine

To make the simple syrup, place a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the black peppercorns and red pepper flakes and toast for 30 seconds, shaking the pan frequently to move contents and prevent burning. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Reduce heat to medium low and add water and sugar. Let simmer for a few minutes or until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature. Strain the syrup into a container and discard the solids.

To make The Peppered Poire, add the gin, Poire William, pear puree and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake well. Strain the contents into a champagne flute and top off the glass with sparkling wine. Float 2 or 3 whole black peppercorns on top of the fizz, if desired.