Cocktails with a kick

Why bartenders, patrons embrace peppery spice

Alan Henkin of Basta
Photo by Abby Faires

There’s little doubt spicy cocktails have found a place on many menus. So Boulder Weekly sought the thoughts of several bartenders, mixologists and general managers around Boulder to find out what appeals to drinkers about spicy cocktails and whether capsaicin, chili peppers’ spicy chemical, is too hot to handle.

For Tyler Anderson, a mixologist at The Kitchen [Upstairs], spicy drinks are just fun to make.

“That’s one of my favorite things to do, is make spicy cocktails,” he says. “To tell you the truth, it’s kind of like an adventure. It’s kind of testing the waters.”

And he says that enthusiasm is mirrored in his guests.

“I love to use Serrano peppers,” Anderson says. “You add that in to the cocktails and people just go crazy about it.

“I think it’s kind of a little bit dangerous, a little bit out of the ordinary,” he says, “and people like to live dangerously sometimes.”

Alan Henkin, a general manager and co-owner of Basta in Boulder, says the Italian restaurant doesn’t currently have any spicy cocktails. He says chili peppers are just too inconsistent for him to use them confidently in drinks.

“All chilis vary quite a bit in terms of their heat, and it’s really hard to know exactly how it’s going to come out as far as the heat level,” he says. “And then of course each person is more or less sensitive than others. So you can easily get drinks sent back.”

For Q’s and The Corner Bar bartender and Beverage Director Adrian Sutevski, the solution for the unpredictability of peppers is to test them out. He says it’s the staff at Q’s on the receiving end of the unpleasant spiciness and discarded drinks, because staff tests each pepper for its spiciness.

But Sutevski credits the quality testing for keeping the spice regulated in the three spicy drinks currently on the menu at Q’s, which include a new cocktail that uses vodka from Boulder’s J&L Distilling, muddled cucumber, ginger and basil simple syrup, soda and, of course, jalapeño.

Anderson admits he has to deal with the unpredictability of peppers.

“Absolutely. That’s what I always tell someone ordering something like that: ‘Just to let you know, one out of eight [times], you’re going to be breathing through your mouth pretty heavily,’” he says. “I think that’s part of the adventure, that’s part of the fun. If it’s really hot, it’s added flavor.

“For the most part, people who order spicy cocktails know exactly what they’re getting into,” he adds.

“That’s why they order it. I mean, I’ve had people sit at my bar and ask for Tabasco sauce to put in their whiskey drink.”

At Q’s, Sutevski has seen the same phenomenon: Some customers treat hot drinks like a challenge.

“That does happen,” he says. “I don’t encourage that from myself or from my staff, to push them to the limit, but if the table, if they have that kind of interaction between themselves as guests, it happens. … I’ve done it myself when I was younger.”

Henkin says there’s a greater chance he will make spicy cocktails in the future if there’s progress in how the spice is delivered.

“I think we’ll start seeing — and they probably exist already — some sort of bitters that involve the heat,” he says, “where you know you have a consistent level of that spice and you can use an eyedropper and you could hit that cocktail with that one eyedropper and you know that it’s not going to ever take it over the top, it’s always going to be at a nice safe level. Whereas once you throw a chili pepper into a Boston shaker and you start muddling, you’re asking for trouble. It could get out of control very fast.”