Raiding the Spice Cabinet: Spice in Cocktails

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis, Will Blunt
December 2011

It’s winter, the season of unrepentant spice, that special time of year when spice cabinets everywhere burst open and unleash an array of woodsy, earthy, sweet, and hot notes upon our plates and palates. And yes, the spice rack is typically the province of the gourd-juggling pastry chef. But this year, we’ve tasted a few seasonal cocktails that not only make a strong case for spice behind the bar, they signal a sophisticated step up for the saccharine mediocrity of “holiday cocktails.”

And we’re not just craving seasonal sentimentality here. Consider what spice has to offer. Beyond the enriching, umami-upping quotient of many spices, ginger’s got exotic heat and florals, clove piques with woodsy anise, cinnamon delivers layers of sweet earthiness, and so on—pronounced, potent flavors, all ideally suited to complement the boozy, stirred cocktails that mark the end of each mixology year.

Spice, Smoke, and Mirrors

The Smoked Cinnamon

The Smoked Cinnamon by Mixologist Todd Maul of Clio – Boston, MA

Up in Boston, Clio’s Todd Maul is a king among flavor delivery innovators (a gift he shared with our 2011 ICC crowd). So while other mixologists dunk their cinnamon sticks into hot toddies, Maul sets his on fire—and not just for the sake of pyrotechnic showmanship (though we dig that, too). “I wanted to take the cinnamon in another direction,” he explains, “to juxtapose it to the drink.” So before pouring in the finished cocktail, Maul fills his glass with the aromatic smoke of a smoldering cinnamon stick.

The result is olfactory prestidigitation at its tastiest. “Your brain tricks your palate,” says Maul. The nose encounters “the immediate sensation of spice” and expects follow-through, but the drink has another flavor profile entirely, in this case made of añejo tequila, Punt e Mes vermouth, pineapple juice, and a healthy dose of Battavia Arack—all of it enhanced by a lingering echo of cinnamon smoke. Which brings up Maul’s only caveat: “What follows behind the spice must be carefully manipulated to either work with the smell or to clash with the spice.”

Techniques: Spice Re-Mix

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus by Mixologist Christy Pope of Cuffs & Buttons – Brooklyn, NY

Down in New York, Cuffs & Buttons co-founder and 2011 ICC presenter Christy Pope works a little spice magic of her own. A Milk & Honey alum (she was part of the original crew), Pope got an early introduction to the exquisite science of a well-crafted cocktail. So incorporating spice into her “Hocus Pocus” was just a matter of respectful tinkering. “The starting point,” says Pope, “was Ada Coleman’s ‘Hanky Panky,’” a gin, sweet Vermouth, and Fernet classic born behind the bar of London’s Savoy Hotel. 

Looking to make an ocean-crossing update, Pope turned her gaze “toward Latin culture and flavor—el Dia de Los Muertos, tequila, mole” and got mixing. “I knew from the start this would be a tequila cocktail,” says Pope, who started with a combination of El Tesoro blanco and Lustau Sherry that’s given a dose of heat, courtesy of a few ancho chilies, N2O, and the Dave Arnold rapid-infusion technique. Pope built layers of spice, heat, and earth tones onto this base, creating a “familiar yet exotic spice profile” by incorporating Ramazzotti and Averna amaros, crème de cacao (a smoother hit of earth notes), and a blend of coriander and star anise tinctures, with herbal and floral notes “to round out the spice profile.” With a final dose of aromatic essences (cocoa, wild sweet orange, cinnamon, and black pepper) and a floating whole star anise, the cocktail update is more than a few shakes beyond Coley’s three-step “Hanky Panky.” But it’s just more credit to Pope’s ability to juxtapose unity and complexity in the same glass.

Simple Joys and Southern Spice

Winter Waltz

Winter Waltz by Mixologist Chris Hannah of Arnaud's French 75 – New Orleans, LA

Down at Nawlins’ Arnaud’s French 75, mixologist (and room temp cocktail experimentalist) Chris Hannah does a simpler seasonal ode to spice. Because even in the warmer climes of the Bayou, the end of the year stirs up a thirst for warmth, heat, and just a dash of bittersweet. Named in honor of Frank Sinatra’s oozy, woozy holiday tune, Hannah’s boozy “Winter Waltz” combines the native spice of American rye whisky with a complementary bracing dose of Averna amaro.

Onto that herbaceous, citrusy, bittersweet base, Hannah overlays the sweet complexity of St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram—a Jamaican liqueur that packs the quadruple allspice punch of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and fresh black pepper. Angostura bitters anchor the drink, and, once again, star anise acts as both the floating garnish and visual cue of the spice-fest to come.

Whether you go straightforward and garnish-brandishing or smoky and sidelong into it, spice in cocktails is a welcome addition to the complex comforts and joys of the seasonal mixology roster. So dust off your cinnamon sticks, kids. ‘Tis the season to be spicy.