In the 1880s, William “The Only William” Schmidt was New York’s celebrity bartender. Frequently covered in the press, Schmidt and his complex cocktails—some with as many as a dozen ingredients—had a national following.
In 1891 Schmidt published “The Flowing Bowl,” a 300-page cocktail manual, which includes the first recipe for a spicy cocktail that I’ve been able to locate (a drink called My Hope, which is a mixture of brandy, port, bitters and red pepper). However, Schmidt’s book also includes a warning (quoted from “Food and Its Adulterations” by Arthur Hassall) on the danger of adding spices to alcohol: “It is impossible to conceive of more scandalous adulterations of spirits than those by cayenne pepper . . . The introduction into the stomach of raw spirits is sufficiently destructive of itself but the addition of such powerful and acrid substances as cayenne pepper and grains of paradise forms a compound which no human stomach or system however strong could long withstand.” For the next century, it seems that most bartenders heeded this warning.
Until recently, with the exception of the Bloody Mary—with its Tabasco and horseradish—spicy cocktails have been a rarity. However, over the past decade, as both spicy foods and craft cocktails have become so very popular, more and more cocktail bars are putting spicy cocktails, with ingredients such as fresh hot peppers, and peppercorn-infused syrups, on their menus.
While spice can be a pleasing addition to many different types of liquors, gin is a particularly good base for spicy cocktails. The botanicals in gin tend to play well against spicy ingredients, often creating cocktails with real depth and complexity. The Poquito Picante, with its touch of jalapeño heat, makes for good—hot—springtime sozzling.
Poquito Picante (based on a recipe from Artemio Vasquez of Yerba Buena, Manhattan)
- 6 to 8 cilantro leaves
- 2 slices of English cucumber with skin
- 3 slices of de-seeded jalapeño
- ¾ oz fresh lemon juice
- ¾ oz simple syrup
- ½ oz Cointreau
- 2 oz Tanqueray (or other London dry) gin
- a dry chili pepper for garnish (optional)
Using a wooden muddler or the bowl of a wooden spoon, gently muddle the cilantro, cucumber slices and jalapeño slices with the lemon juice in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the simple syrup, Cointreau, gin and plenty of ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a dry chili pepper.
To make simple syrup, combine equal parts turbinado sugar with water in a small sauce pan, and bring to a simmer over a low flame, stirring constantly, until all of the sugar is fully dissolved. The syrup is ready to use when cool. Will keep for one week when refrigerated.
By Gamliel Kronemer