Spicy Cocktails: How To Use Chilies, Wisely

"If it grows together, it goes together" is often a mantra for pairing flavors, and the relationship between chili peppers and agave is no different. There is something unexpected and delightful about a cocktail that has a lingering spiciness to contrast with its sweetness, which is perhaps why spicy cocktails have grown so popular over the last few years. This trick on your tongue goes beyond the traditional flavors of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami to add a more tactile point of intrigue: heat.

Incorporating peppers into cocktails has taken many forms: a dusting of dried spice, an infusion in a spirit or syrup, a few dashes of hot sauce, chili liqueurs like Ancho Reyes. One of the earliest was Charles Baker's Holland Razor Blade, which is a gin cocktail for the morning that features an eye-opening dash of cayenne. Hot sauce can be found in everything from the classic Michelada to spicy margarita variations, in which bars use tequila or mezcal as a base and add elements like muddled cucumber, fruit and a few dashes of hot sauce to the traditional spec. Infusions are a bit more difficult, as a hotter chili can quickly overpower a spirit if left to marinate for too long, but they also can impart far more of the chili's range of flavors outside of heat.

With so many peppers to choose from, chilies like jalapeños (or serranos), habaneros and cayenne often have the right balance of intensity and alluring flavor for a cocktail. The Carolina Reaper, currently the world's hottest chili pepper, is a less wise choice. Because many people want something refreshing when they request spicy cocktails, citrus is often involved, though, in the right hands, a stirred cocktail can easily offset the heat and smoke of a chili-infused spirit. Preparing these cocktails very cold is also important to offset any burning sensation on the tongue, since complexity — not pain — is the objective.

Back before the current spicy-cocktail craze, barman Eben Freeman created a drink called the Passione Arrabiata while at Michael White's Osteria Morini. Now showcased on Freeman's menu at Genuine Liquorette in the heart of NYC's Little Italy, the name means "angry passion" in Italian, and like the pasta sauce it was meant to pair with, the drink features a spicy but well-tempered Calabrian chili infusion. As Freeman notes, "the passion fruit creates a sensation at the back of your throat which is so unique that it almost opens up your palate in a new way and makes the experience of the chili's heat more profound." Enjoy.

Passione Arrabiata

Servings: 1 cocktail


2 ounces Calabrian chili–infused Lunazul Reposado tequila*

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce passion fruit puree

½ ounce simple syrup

For infusion: 

  • Rinse chilies in boiling water before infusing to remove any oil.
  • Place 4-5 whole chilies in a liter of reposado tequila for 24 hours.
  • Strain and store for later use.
  • For assembly: 

  • Combine ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously with ice for 10 seconds.
  • Strain over ice into a double rocks glass and garnish with a whole Calabrian chili and straws.
  • Prep Time: 2 minutes

    Difficulty: Easy