How to Craft Your Own Spicy Cocktails at Home

Warmer weather means music festivals, pool parties, beaches, and road trips. It’s also a great time to spice up your drink: a hint of heat makes gin, beer, and tequila cocktails feel even more refreshing and creative.

spicy cocktails recipe tips michelada cocktail

While micheladas, Bloody Marys, and even margaritas are are practically begging for a little Tabasco or sliced jalapeños, why limit yourself? I recently had the opportunity to help judge 15 beautifully crafted spicy cocktails for the national finals of the Booze & Infuse competition at the annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, an homage to all things capsaicin-driven. The variety of drinks — riffs on Martinis, Daiquiris, even Tiki themes — was astounding. “There’s so much more to spicy cocktails than a Bloody Mary,” says Hot Sauce Expo founder Lisa Seabury.

The Expo allows chili-heads the opportunity to sample hundreds of (mostly indie) labels, ranging from sweet to smokey to volcanic, at six cities throughout the country each year. The 15 finalists brought their A game, producing artful, well-balanced drinks under a 90-second speed clock in front of a crowd of about 1,000 hopped-up fans. “We’re like the Slayer concert of cocktail competitions,” Seabury jokes. The winner (New Jersey’s Carlos Ruiz for 2018) scored $5,000. The newest round of regionals are slated for in June at Chicago’s first Hot Sauce Expo.

Drinks are heating up at more buttoned-down spots as well. Liquid Lab, a New York-based cocktail consulting company, offers a very popular Tomato Basil Martini (recipe below) with touch of heat at its private events according to co-founder Parker Boase. At New York’s La Contenta Oeste, bar manager Alex Valencia offers up a wide range of agave-based cocktails all with extra heat. The Mayan (coconut-infused Milagro tequila, housemade corn purée and lime juice) features habanero bitters.

nyc hot sauce expo trophy
NYC Hot Sauce Expo/Facebook

“Hot sauce is a great way to balance out fruity cocktails and give them more depth,” says Boase. “With the martini, we experimented with a bunch of hot sauces, and Tabasco worked the best. I personally put Sriracha on all my food, but for this drink it was too mealy.”

Ready to get creative with your own spicy cocktails? Keep these tips in mind:

Each sauce is different: Anyone who’s tasted through the carousel of options at their local taqueria knows that hot sauces come in a wide range of flavor profiles. According to Boase, “vinegar-based sauces like Tabasco tend to go better with more savory cocktails, while richer sauces like Cholula or Frank’s [Red Hot] work well with fruits like pineapple and watermelon.” Also consider texture (is it a smooth liquid or does it have chopped bits in it?), and any potential food allergies.

Think about making your own sauce: Get creative! Tailor it to your favorite drinks! According to our very own Steven John, it’s “laughably easy.”

Fresh fruits and vegetables are a plus: Cucumber, tomato, watermelon, and pineapple all counterbalance heat nicely.

Spice can come from the booze: Many of the alcohol sponsors for NYC’s Hot Sauce Expo offered up spirits that bring their own heat. Fireball was there, natch. Tanteo Tequila has tasty jalapeño and habanero-infused expressions. And Rock’d, a new vodka (backed in part by Symphony X and Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocker vocalist Russell Allen), has a Sweet Ghost Pepper flavor. Rather than muddling jalapeños into, say, a Spicy Tequila Sunrise, you could use infused tequila. Ancho Reyes, a spicy-sweet Mexican liqueur made using dried poblano peppers, is another excellent means of turning your drink up to 11.

spicy cocktails recipe tips hot sauce tequila sunrise pc in the raw
Spicy Tequila Sunrise/In The Raw

Consider other heat-inducers: Ginger, curry powder, fresh peppers, and black pepper all lend bite (and their own character) to a drink.

Don’t overdo it: You don’t want the sauce to overpower the drink. Treat it the way you would bitters, or an Islay whisky rinse/float. “I usually say less is more, when it comes to hot sauce,” says Boase. “Two or three dashes is usually enough.”

Don’t forget the ice cream: Especially while taste testing and experimenting. Sometimes even the most jaded chili-head faces a lingering pain that just won’t die. Good old vanilla ice cream is the best way to soothe a burning tongue. Added bonus: It’s ice cream!

Let’s get started with a simple recipe you can make at home:

Tomato Basil Martini

spicy cocktails recipe tips tomato basil martini hot sauce pc liquid lab

(Created by Parker Boase, Liquid Lab, New York City)

  • 2 oz vodka
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 4 grape tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 3 basil leaves
  • 2-3 dashes Tabasco (or similar sauce)
  • Pinch of salt

Method: In a cocktail shaker, muddle tomatoes, basil, and salt. Add the rest of the ingredients. Add ice, then shake and strain into a Martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a fresh basil leaf and grape tomato.

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