Pepper Your Drinks, People!
Looking for new ways to use spices this summer? A great place to start is with your drinks. The classics are classic for a reason, but you can always zest up the average lemonade and gin-and-tonic to break the heat on a hot summer day. You could add different base ingredients–limes for lemons, orange juice for sparkling water– but you needn't go further than your spice cabinet.
Spices, one of the building blocks of flavorful food, are often overlooked when it comes to drinks, but they can also add invaluable essence to drinks, transforming the experience. For example, a salt rim on the tried and true G&T can up the tanginess and make it impossible to put your drink down. Adding pepper to a lemonade can give it verve, and lavender can transport you to a botanical garden. A red and peppery strawberry daiquiri can play with your tastebuds, heating you up while it’s cooling you down.
Here are some of my favorite approaches to adding spices to your summer drinks:
SPICED + SALTED RIMS
A cocktail rim is when the edge of your glass is lined with sugar or salt or anything that can stick, giving your drink an extra dimension. Rimming your drink with salt can give it a mouth watering quality that also intensifies the drink’s flavor. A sugar rim can soften the intensity of a strong drink, and bring a much needed sweetness that ameliorates an alcoholic taste. A rim can totally transform your drink. After all, a margarita wouldn’t be a margarita if it didn’t have its classic salt edge!
Aegean Salt Gin and Tonic
When my older sister told me her group of friends were going to be visiting for a few days, I knew that they would be the perfect guinea pigs for my spiced summer drinks. I made this drink the first day they arrived and made enough for six people (myself included!), so if your serving pitcher is smaller, adjust the recipe.
First, quarter each of the citruses and squeeze their juice into the jug, then drop in each of the squeezed fruits afterwards so the drink can get more of their essences. Add the sprigs of rosemary. Then muddle this so the flavors can fuse together. Pour in the gin, tonic water, and ice before giving the drink another stir. Rim your glasses with Aegean Salt and serve the drink.
I chose ingredients that I knew would work with the blend. The floral and evergreen flavor of the gin brings out Aegean’s mastic piney-ness and plays well with the rosemary, and the citrus is perfectly complemented by the lemon peel in the Aegean Salt Blend. Any citrus would work well with the drink and thyme could be a substitute for the rosemary. If you don’t want the strong salty flavor of the blend every time you consume the drink, rimming the glass with the spice is a great way for the individual drinker to choose how much of the spice they want to taste. My sister’s friends loved it, comparing it to a “Salty Dog,” “Margarita,” and a great shot of tequila! It’s a perfect drink to sip as you sit on the porch and watch the day ease into sunset.
A simple syrup is a liquid made from equal parts sugar and water and is used to sweeten cocktails, coffee, and lemonade. Because it is a liquid, it is easier to combine with cold drinks than regular granulated sugar. When you heat spices in a simple syrup, the spice imparts its oils and aromatics into the syrup, giving it flavor. The average flavored simple syrup is truly simple, requiring just sugar, water and your spice. This is a great and efficient way to season a drink.
Pepper-Lavender Cucumber Lemonade
Start toasting the black pepper in a medium sized pot until the air is fragrant with the scent of warm pepper. Heating the spices can intensify the flavor and add more depth. Then add the water, sugar, and lavender. On a medium to low temperature, let the mixture heat until all the sugar is dissolved.. Don’t let it boil, as sugar can burn easily. Allow to cool, then taste with a small spoon without consuming the solid spices. If it is sufficiently flavored by the lavender and pepper, strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a glass jar. If you think the flavor could be deeper, leave the mixture undisturbed for 30 min to 2 hours and then strain (Don’t heat it more or else the syrup becomes very thick). Let the syrup cool until it is ready to use.
Quarter four lemons and squeeze their juice through a strainer into a large jug. Put the remainder of the lemons into the jug to impart citron flavor. Then cut up your mini cucumber (I only had minis, half a regular cucumber will do) and put that in the jug. Pour in the simple syrup, water, and ice, mix, and enjoy.
Black pepper is an ingredient that almost everybody has in their kitchen. It is rarely (but sometimes!) used in sweet food and might be an unusual addition to a sweet drink, but introducing it through the sweetness of a simple syrup can balance the punch of the pepper. This is why making a simple syrup is a great way to use your savory spices. It's important to use the whole version of your spices because the oils that contribute flavor and aroma haven't been disturbed and are more intact. The lavender is a more typical sweet spice and adds a pleasant floral flavor (check out this Bon Appétit article to learn more about using lavender in food!). This lemonade is refreshingly sweet and has the perfect peppery bite to cool off a hot summer day.
And then there is the option of just putting the whole spice in the drink. This approach, often seen in making food, is much rarer in drinks, where spices are typically incorporated via rims and syrups. But what works for your stews can work for your cocktails! If you are passionately in love with a spice, it's worth experimenting with it in the context of a drink. Stir in the salt. Muddle the dried mushrooms. Soak the sage. This is the best way to get the full flavor of a spice into a drink.
Peppery Strawberry Daiquiri
2 cups frozen strawberries
Red Long Pepper is a ruddy brown color made up of a thumbnail-sized cluster of tiny peppercorns in a pine cone shape. Start toasting the Red Long Pepper in a medium-sized pot until the air is scented with the warm pepper. Then add the water and sugar. On a medium to low temperature, let the mixture heat until all the sugar is melted. Don’t let it boil. Taste the simple syrup. If it is sufficiently flavored by the pepper, take it out with a spoon. After they were out I touched the freshly cooked pepper with my fingertips, revealing a network of lipid shaped kernels connecting to a long central core. It should have a rich and chocolatey flavor with a soft, pleasant heat. If it doesn’t, keep it on the heat until it does, no longer than 30 minutes. Cool the syrup to room temp.
I was trying to make a sweet but punchy drink and after I tasted the simple syrup I realized the syrup alone would not suffice. So I decided to do something a little bold. I added the pepper pods into the blender and blended them with the rest of the ingredients until smooth. Frozen drinks can often numb the flavors within it, so it pays to use the bold flavors of the hot pepper and the sweet-tart strawberry. The red long peppers lent a daring heat to the frozen daiquiri, but unlike the biting smokiness of the black pepper, this pepper tasted ripe, red, and spicy. This direct use is a great way to flavor your whole drink with a spice, but I recommend contrasting the spice with something that can stand up to it well, like the ice and the strawberries.
The pepper flavor perfectly contrasted the sweetness and iciness of the drink, and offset the flavor of the alcohol. This intriguing drink is perfect for one of those humid summer nights.
I never realized how much I could color outside the lines when it came to drinks. I had never even thought of incorporating spices into my cool drinks before this experiment in seasoning. I used salt for my margaritas and put cinnamon and vanilla in my hot chocolate but would have never imagined putting pepper in a strawberry daiquiri or a salt blend with my G&Ts. Forget thinking outside the box. The box is officially broken. And with the gears in my head still turning from these three well-spiced drinks, it makes me wonder what other spices I should put in my drinks. Do you have any ideas?
Words and pictures by John Kilfoyle