The Spicy Margarita Made Easy

Spicy Margaritas have always been part of the landscape at Chicago stalwart The Violet Hour. But as every capsicum lover knows, you can’t tell how spicy a chile pepper will be until you take a bite—and by then, it may be too late.

“You grab a handful of jalapeños, and it’s always different,” agonizes Toby Maloney, longtime head mixologist at The Violet Hour and author of The Bartender’s Manifesto. Finding a consistent heat level is “nigh-on impossible.”

Instead of tinkering with infused syrups or spirits, Maloney turns to commercial hot sauces instead: “I knew they’d already do the quality control for me, and it would always be the same spice level.” After sampling every hot sauce he could find, he settled on one bottle: Tabasco Green Jalapeño Sauce.

“I homed in on green Tabasco because most of the things I would use it in would be tequila-based, and green Tabasco has that fresh green bell pepper and jalapeño flavor that’s shared by a lot of tequila,” he recalls. Another important consideration: “There’s no vinegar [taste] in green Tabasco,” which made it more versatile for cocktails. “I didn’t want it to be shrub-y.”

Over the years, the Violet Hour team has used the hot sauce to add “spice and pop” to a wide range of drinks, including three included in The Bartender’s Manifesto. For example, the Flaming Heart, a 2010 drink that Maloney describes as a cross between a spicy Margarita and a Hotel Nacional, spotlights blanco tequila, pineapple juice and the vanilla-forward Licor 43 liqueur. The “round, green, sweet heat” of green Tabasco played well with the fruit and vanilla, he notes, providing just a tinge of heat.

The drink is a great example of how the natural “fruitiness” and low acidity of the hot sauce works particularly well with fruit-forward recipes. “I think about, what are my favorite flavors of Margaritas?” he reasons, ticking off pineapple, mango, guava, papaya. “Funky, tropical things go well with green jalapeño.”

Maloney is quick to point out that not all mezcal is alike, but notes that most versions aimed for use in cocktails tend to fall into two camps: either round and fruity, or “wicked smoky” and relatively dry. Either way, “green Tabasco is going to sing with both of those flavor profiles.”

The hot sauce hack works in drinks with more complex flavor profiles, too, as in the Tex-Anne, with a split base of blanco tequila and crema de mezcal, sweetened with orgeat and yellow Chartreuse. A more aggressive or vinegary hot sauce would have overshadowed some of that nuance, yet green Tabasco plays its part without “becoming a bully,” he says. 

In addition to drinks made with agave spirits, Maloney suggests green Tabasco would work well in drinks made with vodka and fruit brandies; he’s less optimistic about whiskey-based drinks, which he prefers with “a more rhizome-y heat, like ginger.” And he’s particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of pairing green Tabasco with rum.

“Tequila is what most people think of when they think spice,” he explains. “But I think rum and spice works just as well, if not better. Spicy Daiquiris over spicy Margaritas!”

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