Bunches of mint are regarded as essential for mojitos .. juleps .. but while fresh herbs are an established part of the bartender’s arsenal, spices don’t often feature beyond the distillation phase. It is time to start using more spices in cocktails.
Coriander seeds, cubeb pepper and Grains of Paradise are popular spices used in gin-making. There’s caraway-spiked kümmel, rums flavoured with nutmeg, cloves, vanilla and whiskies celebrated for their notes of nutmeg, white pepper, anise.
The spice rack is a wonderful but, perhaps, underused source of inspiration when it comes to cocktail-making. Whole spices can be used to infuse spirits and syrups. Ground spices can be mixed with salts and sugars to rim a cocktail glass. It’s a perfect example of how a little pinch of something potent can take a pedestrian cocktail and transform it into something phenomenal!
HOW TO INFUSE SPICES IN ALCOHOL
Come autumn, sloe gin becomes a preoccupation for lots of Brits: sniff out and scrump sloes from a hedgerow, prick with a fork, add to a gin and sugar mix. By Christmas the sloes will have turned the gin a beautiful plummy purple and imparted their distinctive winter berry flavour.
Well, the exact same can be done with spices. Traditionally, spices and botanicals are added to stills and ‘macerated’ (infused) before the spirit is distilled. However it’s possible to do this at a later stage. Take those (expensive!) little gin kits which contain teeny tins of rose petals, pink peppercorns, dried orange peel.You simply add what you fancy to a bottle of gin to make a bespoke blend suited to your taste.
We came across a more rustic version of this on a spice sourcing trip in Grenada. It’s called ‘Under the Counter Rum’ – and most bars on the island have their own supply. You could even buy empty bottles pre-filled with whole, dried spices and botanicals, ready to be topped up with rum and left to infuse. This bottle (pictured) which we saw in Georgetown Market contained Bois Bande bark, dried Tonka, bay leaf, cinnamon, lemongrass. Apparently it’s tradition to bung in a centipede too, for good measure.
Head a little further north and the national tipple is Pimento Dram – a popular infusion in Jamaica made simply by mixing rum with the Caribbean’s native allspice berries.
Most nations have their own liquors which harness local or favourite flavours. Take Eastern European Kümmel, made using Caraway (see HERE) or Arrack – popular throughout Southeast Asia – made using fermented sugarcane.
TRY IT AT HOME:
Plum and Star Anise Infused Brandy
Ingredients: 400g plums (halved, destoned) + 200g caster sugar + 700ml brandy (did you know that Iceland stocked Jules Clarion for £13.75, a bargain!) + 3 star anise.
Method: Put the plums in a kilner jar, cover with the sugar, pour over the brandy and add the star anise. Seal and agitate gently so the sugar starts to dissolve. Give the jar a gentle swirl every day for a week and then move it to a pantry or dark cupboard to infuse for a further two weeks. Strain the liquid, rebottle and enjoy.
Cocktail Inspiration: put a sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute, add two dashes of Angostura bitters and cover with (20ml) of the plum and star anise brandy. Top up with champagne.
Tellicherry Peppercorns and Celery Infused Vodka
Ingredients: 1tbsp Tellicherry peppercorns, 2 sticks of celery, 200ml vodka
Method: Heat the Tellicherry peppercorns in a dry pan until fragrant. Add to a kilner jar along with the sliced celery sticks. Cover with vodka and put in a pantry or dark cupboard. Give it a shake every day for 3 days. Strain and enjoy.
Cocktail Inspiration: use in a Bloody Mary, phenomenal!
NOTE Even though ground spices can be strained out with a cheesecloth, some residue may remain and nobody wants a ground-cinnamon-mustache when sipping a cocktail. We recommend using whole spices for infusions. Try cardamom pods with slices of fresh ginger, fennel seeds, cinnamon sticks, star anise, coriander seeds, peppercorns and whole chilies.
HOW TO MAKE A SPICED SUGAR SYRUP
Monin Sugar Syrups (available in most supermarkets) have an extensive range: anise, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, lemongrass…speculoos … candyfloss!
It couldn’t be easier (and cheaper) to make your own. The base of a sugar syrup (or ‘simple syrup’) is traditionally 2:1 parts sugar : water – the ratio allows you to scale up or down. I often do a 1:1 ratio for something slightly less-sweet (see below). Simply heat the sugar and water in a pan until the sugar dissolves. Add the spice and fruit and then leave to infuse for anything from 1h to 3 days (refrigerated).
NOTE, It’st easiest to weigh everything out (rather than using a measuring jug). So if, for example, you use 300g of caster sugar, then add 300GRAMS of water (1 gram of water weighs the same as 1 millilitre).
Just spiced syrups are delicious. Fennel sugar syrups harness the anise flavours of kummel and aquavit, and a cinnamon stick infusion will compliment autumnal flavours. My top tip is to combine with a seasonal fruit. That way, you’re essentially poaching the fruit, (which you then strain out and can enjoy with ice cream, yoghurt and granola). Voila, a cocktail and a pudding!
TRY IT AT HOME:
Two spiced-fruit sugar syrups:
250g caster sugar + 250g water + 2 sticks of rhubarb + 2 thick slices of fresh ginger
250g caster sugar + 250g water + apricots (quartered) + 4 cardamom pods (crushed)
Cocktail Inspiration: 2 shots of gin + 1 shot of lemon + 1 shot of your spiced-fruit sugar syrup + 1 egg white. Tip everything into a cocktail shaker, fill with ice and shake vigorously until your hands are too cold to hold the shaker. Pour and serve.
HOW TO MUDDLE COCKTAILS WITH A SPICE
‘Muddling’ is essentially creating a quick infusion. You bash and bruise whatever it might be – fresh mint or lime – to release the juice or essential oils, and enlarge the surface area so that the flavours will quickly infuse into the drink.
A mojito might be the most popular ‘muddled’ drink, but bartenders are looking to more adventurous ingredients. Take the cult Soho House cocktail, the Picante de la Casa, which starts by muddling chilli and coriander. Delicious!
Fennel Seeds are a good spice to muddle (look up: Fen Ella Cocktail). Also Coriander Seeds – which go particularly well in a gin-based cocktail, as coriander seeds are such a popular gin botanical.
HOW SPICE THE RIM OF A COCKTAIL GLASS
Spicing a cocktail glass has to be one of the quickest and easiest ways of taking things to the next level. Simply tip the spice blend on a saucer, moisten the rim of the glass and dip it in. Depending on the spice you are using, you might want to use lemon or lime juice to moisten the rim of the glass – or a simple syrup or agave for something sweet.
Here’s some inspiration for spice-rimmed cocktails:
Margarita: Ancho chili powder + lime zest + salt
Paloma: Ground ginger + salt
Boody Mary: Hot smoked paprika + cracked black pepper + salt
Turkish Coffee Cocktail: Ground cardamom pod seeds + sugar
Eggnog Martini: Ground cinnamon + sugar
Gin Mojito topped with Hot Smoked Paprika rim