10 Spicy Cocktails For the Scoville Junkie

Glass jar of peppers
From dry heat to sweet heat to pure melt-your-face-off heat, each pepper brings something different to a drink.

You may have noticed spicy drinks on bar menus all over the country, but what may seem like an easy added dash of hot sauce actually requires great knowledge and skill to execute well. If you’re in pursuit of inspiration and wisdom, there are as many ways to make a spicy cocktail as there are bars offering them.

Spicy drinks present unique challenges for bartenders. Different varieties of peppers offer different flavors, and within the varietal, each individual pepper may have a higher or lower heat index value than the one before. Not to mention, convincing customers that they’re more than a weird gotta-try-it-once fad is an obstacle in itself. We spoke to three bartenders in New Orleans to find out how they’re getting the most out of the spicy drinks on their menus.

Amanda Thomas tends bar at Kingfish and worked with food before becoming a bartender six years ago. She spent a lot of time traveling and developing her palate, to which she attributes the adventurous spirit she brings to her drinks. Her travels taught her a lot about different peppers in particular. She uses this knowledge to determine which pepper is best for which drink, “It all depends on what kind of heat I’m looking for. Whether I’m looking for a sweet heat, a peppery heat, or a dry heat, every pepper has its own heat index. It hits you in different stages.” She explains, “Take poblano. Poblano is more a dry heat. A jalapeño is going to be a sweet heat. A Serrano is a dry pepper heat. You know, habañero is just a very — it’s a spicy heat. You have your ghost chilies, which is a numbing heat. So it’s all in what heat you want.” She tells me that she tastes a piece of every pepper she uses to make sure it isn’t too hot, and if it’s not hot enough, she won’t use it because using too much, even if the pepper isn’t hot, leaves different flavors in the drink.

Cole Newton, a bartender for 12 Mile Limit, prefers to use infusions or hot sauces to keep his flavors consistent. Using a pre-made liquid can help him maintain consistency even when the bar is full. He’s developed the perfect means of infusing with jalapeños to get the precise spice: “Poke holes in them with a fork. If you cut them up you’ll get way too much,” he says. “Three jalapeños for two liters of tequila for 24 hours, and if it ends up too spicy, you can add tequila and dial it back.”

Bartender Ellie Rogers of The Mayhaw created a syrup for her signature drink that her compadres can also use. She worries that using fresh peppers can get too time-consuming in the market-style bar she works behind, “At first I was using fresh jalapeños, and I had to clean the seeds out of them, and I thought I couldn’t introduce this to my fellow bartenders unless I made it a lot easier, so I made a syrup. And I cut three ingredients down into one ingredient.” This also allows her enough syrup to get through several nights with one batch, and it helps to ensure each bartender is making the drink the same way so that customers know what to expect.

Consistency and providing the right heat are crucial to keep customers ordering. For Thomas, offering more familiar flavors like sarsaparilla helps, since most customers expect that type of spice in a drink. For Newton, that spiciness is best matched with ginger. Each of them believes that offering other flavors along with the spice is key to keep customers happy. No matter what technique and flavor pairing each bartender uses, their spicy drinks have been top sellers, and customers consistently come back for more. Here's a roundup of 10 spicy New Orleans cocktails in high demand.

1. Defense Against the Dark Arts

Amber Peterson's spicy concoction pairs the vibrant kick of fresh jalapeño with smooth chocolate liqueur and bright citrus. It's the obvious choice for anyone who's ever known and loved peppered chocolate bars — heat and sweet make quite the combination.

2. Cuzco Campfire

The Cuzco Campfire, created by Amber Peterson, calls for a house-made syrup that combines maple syrup, charred chili and kosher salt, yielding a flavor that is dynamically sweet, spicy, smoky and savory all at once. Compounded with whiskey, mezcal and Xocolatl Mole Bitters, this is one of the more complex and interesting spicy cocktails you'll find.

3. West Texas Town

Named after a Marty Rogers song, this cocktail is as sweet and wicked as the infamous Mexican heroine the ballad is about. Delicate notes of honey, vanilla and Demerara play on the earthy heat of fresh jalapeños, rounded out by the warmth of Blanco tequila and rye whiskey.

4. Two Steps to the Left

The dry heat of serrano peppers is matched by the dryness of cab sav, and both flavor profiles are enriched by dark cream de cacao and rye whiskey. The Laphroaig rinse adds to the boozy complexity.

5. Racehorse

The sweet spice of sarsaparilla is complemented by tart lime, smooth tequila and the bitterness of dry vermouth; it's something like a margarita that packs an interesting punch.

6. Zapata's Gun

The heat comes subtly through the vinegar base of a jalapeño shrub, met with crisp Agua Fresca and Reposado tequila. This drink is both herbal and earthy, with flavors of cilantro, ginger and aperol to balance its peppery essence.

7. Minor Swing Margarita

Floral hibiscus jalapeño infused tequila, Solerno blood orange liqueur and grapefruit soda are matched by a hot sauce salt, making for one of the most innovative margaritas around.

8. Love Hurts

According to its inventor, Brian Kientz of New Orleans' Freelance, the Love Hurts "tingles and excites your lips and, as you drink, it becomes hotter and hotter until it burns, but you kind of want to know where it will take you," he says. "My drink is inspired by burning love, the kind of crazy love you don’t want to let go of but sometimes you can’t wait to get away from. It burns so good."

9. The Baudin

One of the simpler but most satisfying spicy cocktails, this recipe calls for a few things that are likely already in your home or bar -- bourbon, honey, tabasco and lemon juice, shaken and poured over ice with a lemon peel. The Baudin is as easy to make as it is to drink.

10. Touch of Evil

The heat of jalapeño-infused tequila is tempered by the sweet richness of orgeat and the delicate vanilla notes of Navan. Dynamic and drinkable, Touch of Evil is subtly spicy and an ideal gateway onto the Scoville Scale.

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