Sip a New Breed of Spicy Cocktails

Foil the dog days of summer by fighting fire with fire.

spicy cocktails
The Jalisco is Burning, one of Barrio Costero’s signature spicy cocktails, features tequila, mezcal and chipotle syrup. Courtesy of Richard Benedict

At Jersey farms, hot peppers are in peak season, ready to enliven your late-summer tippling. Seeking spice in an August cocktail may sound counterintuitive, since alcohol elevates the fiery tingle of capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers. But spiciness can help balance the fruity flavors in a cocktail and brighten its herbal liqueurs and strong spirits.

Jamie Dodge, who oversees the cocktail programs at Barrio Costero, Reyla and Laylow in Asbury Park, is on board. “Bold flavors are what we’re known for,” he says. “We use all sorts of chilies. From fresh jalapeños and Fresno chilies to arbol and chipotle morita chili powders, our menus are full of spice.” 

Even the seeds of fresh chilies have value. Dodge uses them to make tinctures, a concentrated infusion of  herbs, spices, fruits or vegetables steeped in clear, high-proof alcohol. Tasted alone, they are powerful; added to a concoction, they enhance it.

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Perhaps the most common pepper-inspired drink is the spicy margarita, typically made with jalapeño-infused tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur. Central Taco and Tequila, a modern Mexican eatery in Haddon Township, uses a smoky mezcal in place of tequila. “When paired with the jalapeño, the smokiness helps balance the spice and create the perfect flavor profile,” says Jake Karley, of PJW Restaurant Group, who built the eatery’s extensive tequila and mezcal list.

If you’re one of the many who took up gardening during the pandemic and have a surplus of peppers, try making your own tinctures. Start by infusing an agave-based spirit such as blanco tequila with slices of fresh jalapeño, keeping the seeds intact. Dodge recommends a 24-hour soak. “It depends on the pepper,” he says. “Some are spicier than others.” To avoid a result that would have you calling the fire department, he adds, “I recommend tasting the infusion every few hours to meet your desired level of spice.”

Once you have the process down, experiment. You can use any type of spicy peppers you buy or grow in your garden with any liquor you want to fire up. Arbol chilies awaken light rums; chipotles bring energizing undertones to already smoky spirits such as Scotch. 

If you’re not up for do-it-yourself, head for Skunktown Distillery in Flemington, where distiller Paul Hyatt infuses his potato-based vodka with exceptionally hot Carolina Reaper peppers.  

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