The spirit of the season: pepper

Since last week’s column featured salt as a cocktail ingredient, it seems fitting to follow up with its tabletop partner: pepper. While we typically associate cocktails with sweet, sour, smoky or perhaps savoury flavour palettes, some daring avant-garde bartenders are increasingly experimenting with drinks that exploit the spicy flavours of peppercorns and various chili peppers. The only downside, I suppose, is that these piperine- and capsaicin-laced drinks might require one to keep an accompanying chaser handy in case the heat gets too intense.

While in Victoria last summer, I had the privilege of visiting the Veneto Tapa Lounge, famous for its “surprise me” option whereby patrons choose a flavour and a base spirit and the lounge’s skilled bartenders invent something on the spot. Although I felt overwhelmed and embarrassingly underdressed at such a fancy venue, one particular drink stands out in my memory: a mixture of cachaça (Brazilian white rum), shavings of red bell pepper, lemon juice and crushed ice, all topped with a healthy sprinkling of cracked black and red peppercorns. Simple, refreshing and slightly spicy, this drink is a perfect bookend to a muggy summer day on the west coast – or a great way to use up aging fruits and veggies from your fridge. For a spicier variant of this cocktail, try the barbacoa: muddled bell pepper, chipotle pepper, lime and shaved ginger root topped with ice, sugar syrup and tequila or mezcal, all garnished with a strip of beef jerky.

If you’re looking for something more stiff, try the black pepper Gibson: two ounces of gin or vodka and an ounce of dry vermouth, shaken into a martini glass and topped with cracked black pepper and a couple cocktail onions. Those looking to kick up the heat can also use pepper- or chili-infused spirits such as Absolut Peppar or the intense UV Sriracha Vodka, or simply infuse their own at home.

A similar process is at the heart of some chili pepper-infused drinks, such as Saveur’s “killer B,” which features simple syrup – a 2:1 granulated-sugar-to-water configuration, slowly heated on a stovetop – made with cracked peppercorns and minced Thai bird’s eye chilies. A variation of the “bee’s knees” cocktail, this drink comprises two ounces of gin and a half-ounce of lemon juice, but swaps honey for said spicy syrup in a unique balance of sour and sweet, floral and fiery. Alternatively, add a dose of this special syrup to a white rum and muddled mint mojito to elevate this refreshing yet mediocre beverage to new peppery heights.

Last but not least is the beer cocktail that is as diverse and flamboyant in construction as Canada’s caesar: the michelada. Favoured in Mexico, this spicy shandy is essentially plain light beer livened up with any combination of lime juice, salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce, tomato or clamato juice, salsa, or hot sauce made from jalapeño, serrano, habanero or smoked chipotle peppers. Often, these will also be served in a pint glass rimmed with either salt or chili powder. Much like caesars, micheladas are reputed to cure hangovers – if all that salt, sour and spice doesn’t rejuvenate your aching body, perhaps nothing will.

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