Cocktail menus have been heating up for quite some time now, fueled by the rise of Ancho Reyes — a Mexican chili liqueur adored by a healthy horde of craft bartenders. As the two-year-old brand readies its newest label for the Los Angeles market at the start of 2017 (Verde: an amped up, poblano-forward variation), it's clear that spicy drinks are more than a passing fad. And pepper spice is just one of many ways in which local mixologists are tickling tongues with their tipples. Here's a hot take on where to find the city's finest.
The vegetal, smoky characteristics of a stereotypical mezcal positions the spirit as a prime suspect in spicier send-ups. While many bartenders are taking that basic formula and running with it, few manage to introduce intrigue and complexity as deftly as China Morbosa. Behind the stick at the Eveleigh in West Hollywood, she prepares her Zapatista using a Serrano-infused mezcal, Barolo Chinato (a fortified Italian wine), Aperol and a pinch of smoked sea salt. “It's a spicy take-off of a mezcal negroni,” explains Morbosa. “Bitter, sweet and spicy. The richness of the Barolo Chinato is at the base, combined with light orange and bitterness from the Aperol, highlighted by a smoky, spicy mezcal with grapefruit citrus notes at the end.”
At Far Bar in Little Tokyo, bar director Sean Naughton aims the Serrano chili in a different direction with his Terranova. Inspired by spicy margaritas, Naughton augments citrus components with the pure refreshment of muddled cucumbers. A blanco tequila from Tromba is focused enough to carry itself through the tingle of ginger and Serrano-laced orange liqueur. It brings the fire while simultaneously extinguishing it. As an exclamation point on the theme, he garnishes the drink with a blistered Shishito pepper.
Faith and Flower relies on ginger alone to deliver the goods — along with a spiced Swedish liqueur called Geijer Glogg. The 24 Carrot Magic, crafted by lead bartender Darwin Pornel, is an orange-hued rum drink, named after the colorful vegetable used to create it. Its velvety mouthfeel and subtler tendencies make it a perfect accompaniment to the restaurant's revolutionary beef tartare, prepared with a soothing miso cream.
In the cocktail trade, a catch-all ingredient (such as the ubiquitous elderflower drink, St. Germain) is commonly referred to as “bartender's ketchup.” Ancho Reyes, for its part, might as well be bartender's Sriracha — a predictable way to infuse spicy flavor into any recipe. The examples are endless: Salazar makes “La Anticuado” with Ancho, brown butter-washed corn, and Mexican fernet; The Spareroom mixes it with Thai basil and gin in their alluring “Temple of Tiger Shark”; and Melrose Umbrella Company merges coffee, cream and pecan bitters into the fold with “The Hornet's Kiss.” Delicious, all. But few of them are sweat-inducing.
If you have a high tolerance for heat, head over to Belcampo in Santa Monica, where the menu allows for customizable spiciness in their “Piña tu Madre,” the most elegant retelling of a piña colada you'll ever meet. It's an artful assembly of spiced rum, amaro, coconut cream and chocolate chili bitters, topped with a peacock-invoking flourish of roasted pineapple, flowers and mint. With varying doses of a house-made pepper tincture, they can serve the drink mild, medium, or hot to taste.
Once Ancho Reyes Verde hits shelves, it will be easier to up the ante on spice at home. With a finish that's been likened to spicy Doritos, the $35 bottle needs little more than lime and any higher-proof spirit to demonstrate its value — in Scoville units.
In a land where Mexican cuisine reigns supreme, it's hardly surprising that a spicy sensibility spills over into local liquids. We might not get a taco truck on every corner, sadly, but we're well on our way to a spicy cocktail on every bar menu.