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Elements: Jalapeño Cocktails

Google “jalapeño cocktails” and you’ll find countless variations of the classic Margarita. But this little green chili is perfect for muddling, infusing, or garnishing. It also packs a serious flavor punch, bursting with vegetal character and a hint of heat, so it’s no surprise that its use in cocktails is starting to expand.

Much like any ingredient, the jalapeño needs to be understood in order to wield it effectively. “I think jalapeños are misused, and the idea of spice has been misused when it comes to cocktails,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson, managing partner and beverage director of Washington, D.C.–based Serenata and Zumo. Johnson says it’s important to understand the ratio of spice to alcohol when making infusions and is an advocate of making syrups with jalapeño as a “better way to control the balance of the spice,” she says. “Being able to balance that heat allows you to manage how much spice is going in.”

Jalapeños also aren’t all about spice—as a chili pepper, they’re technically a fruit (specifically, a berry), with the thick flesh surrounding a number of internal seeds. “People think it’s just about getting some heat, but there’s an ineffable fresh green savour in the chili,” says Toby Cecchini, owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, where a jalapeño-infused tequila is used in the Dolores del Rio, from bartender Phil Ward. “You have to macerate it slowly enough to extract those aromas and flavors,” he says. “Chili is a fruit, after all, and it conveys its essence in the same way all fruits do.”

At Grey Ghost in Detroit, bar manager Asher Miller credits inspiration from a recent meal for his Brother in Arms cocktail, which uses jalapeño syrup. “This drink was inspired by a salad I ate that had diced jalapeños and strawberries in it,” he says. “I often find that food is a great source of ideas for cocktails.” Miller says the robust flavor of jalapeños makes them perfect for a range of cocktail recipes. “Beyond the spice, the bright flavor of the pepper brings a beautiful vegetal note to a drink,” he says. “Jalapeño can help balance a sweet or heavy drink because of its bright spicy and acidic flavors. When it’s roasted, you can draw out deeper, rich, and smoky flavors. Its versatility makes it very user-friendly.”

Dolores del Rio

Much of the spice in jalapeños can be found in the fruit’s many seeds, so adding them to an infusion helps magnify the flavor.

1 1⁄2 oz. jalapeño-infused blanco tequila
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. passion fruit purée
3⁄4 oz. Aperol
1⁄2 oz. rich demerara syrup (2:1)
1 pinch kosher salt

Tools: shaker, strainer, fine strainer
Glass: coupe

Shake all of the ingredients with ice, then double strain into a chilled coupe.

Jalapeño-Infused Blanco Tequila: Slice 3 to 8 fresh jalapeños (depending on size and desired intensity) and add to a large jar, including the seeds, along with 1 liter of blanco tequila. Start checking the infusion after 30 minutes; once the spice level is intense but not yet overwhelming, strain the tequila back into its bottle. Keeps indefinitely, but the flavor will fade somewhat over time.

Phil Ward, The Long Island Bar, Brooklyn

Brother in Arms

The sweetness of raspberry syrup contrasts beautifully with the vegetal spice of jalapeños in this mezcal cocktail.

2 oz. mezcal
3⁄4 oz. fresh lime juice
1⁄2 oz. raspberry syrup
1⁄4 oz. jalapeño syrup
4 dashes chocolate bitters
Cilantro tincture, to rinse glass

Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: rocks
Garnish: cilantro bouquet

Prepare a rocks glass by heavily rinsing it with cilantro tincture, then adding ice. Shake the remaining ingredients with ice, strain into the prepared glass, then garnish.

Jalapeño Syrup: Purée a desired number of fresh jalapeños in a blender, then use a fine-mesh strainer to strain the juice. Measure the amount of liquid, then blend with an equal amount of granulated sugar until fully dissolved. Keeps refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Cilantro Tincture: Infuse 2 oz. of fresh cilantro in 8 oz. of 150-proof grain neutral spirits or high-proof vodka for 24 hours. Strain and bottle for use; keeps indefinitely.

Asher Miller, Grey Ghost, Detroit

Light My Fire

Bitter Campari and aromatic Chartreuse engage with the flavors of jalapeño, cucumber, and tequila.

2 oz. blanco tequila
1 oz. jalapeño-cucumber coconut water syrup
3⁄4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 oz. yellow Chartreuse
1⁄4 oz. Campari, for float

Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: cocktail
Garnish: dehydrated lemon wheel, lengthwise-cut jalapeño sliver

Shake the first 4 ingredients with ice, then strain into a cocktail glass holding a single large ice cube (optional). Gently add Campari as a “float” atop the drink, and garnish.

Jalapeño-Cucumber Coconut Water Syrup: Cut 1⁄2 of a cucumber into large dice, and (wearing rubber gloves) split a jalapeño lengthwise, removing and discarding the seeds, then split a second jalapeño lengthwise and reserve the seeds. In a medium saucepan, add 18 oz. of coconut water and 18 oz. of granulated sugar, and stir over low heat until combined. Raise the heat to medium, and add the jalapeños and the reserved seeds; bring to a boil, then let simmer 6-8 minutes. Strain the syrup and let cool, then refrigerate until chilled. In a blender, combine the syrup with the cucumber and blend until smooth, then strain through a fine strainer. Keeps refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Andra “AJ” Johnson, Serenata, Washington, D.C.

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