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Spices Offer New Twists on Classic Cocktails

Spices Offer New Twists on Classic Cocktails

You’ve bought craft spirits and artisanal bitters, stocked your bar cart with stirrers, shakers and citrus juicers. But when it’s time to mix up cocktails, do you utilize your spice rack?

“Bitters, liqueurs, vermouths and other common cocktail ingredients are all made with spices, and are a great (and very easy) way to incorporate spice flavors in mixed drinks,” says Ethan Frisch, co-founder of Burlap & Barrel, a New York City-based spice company. It follows, then, that actual spices might confer the same benefits.

“You get deeper, more vibrant flavors” in your drinks versus pre-made mixes and bitters, adds Claire Cheney, founder and blender-in-chief of Curio Spice Co. in Massachusetts. Her favorite ways to use spices as part of her bar repertoire include muddling them at the bottom of a shaker or stirring glass. Just be sure to use a fine-mesh strainer when you pour the drink into a glass. Cheney will also use whole spices as garnish, which adds both visual and aromatic appeal.

Along with depth, aroma, warmth and even bitterness, spices can add context.

“By adding spices, we can make [classic cocktails] feel a little more Indian,” says Avish Naran, owner of Pijja Palace, an Indian restaurant and sports bar in Los Angeles.

Take Pijja Palace’s Jaggery Old Fashioned. This drink utilizes cardamom bitters, which make it taste like a ladoo, a style of sweet pastry. Elsewhere on the restaurant’s drink menu, you’ll also find the Pataquiri, a take on a Daiquiri. Laced with allspice and clove, Naran says, it conjures a “rooh afza (a type of squash drink) beverage you might find at a lahri/hawker on the side of the road in India.”

The same goes for making spice-centered simple syrups.

“Adding fresh spices or using homemade extracts can bring an intensity of flavor that’s often missing from bitters or pre-made syrups,” says Frisch. “Grating a little nutmeg or sprinkling some cinnamon, black lime or sumac over a cocktail right before serving will give it a pop of flavor and aroma that’s unmistakable and a huge upgrade over anything you buy in a store.”

Intrigued? We asked these experts to remix classic cocktail recipes with fresh spices in mind. From a classic mimosa to a pumpkin spice martini, here’s how to spice up your bar cart.

Apple cider sangria recipe
Photo by Tom Arena

“I love this concept for an autumn sangria,” says Cheney. To ramp up the seasonal flavors, she recommends using mulling spices.

“Essentially, mull your apple cider like you normally would,” she says, suggesting mulling kits like her company’s Botanist Mulling Kit or the Flame Mulling Kit. “Otherwise, [you can use] whole cinnamon, a touch of clove, star anise and orange peel. Then, cool the mulled cider to room temperature before making the sangria.” Want more spice options? You can also use cardamom, peppercorns and allspice.

Pro tip: “If you’re going your own route, use a maximum of two whole cloves for a gallon of cider,” says Cheney. “I’ve experienced way too many mulled wines and ciders that are heavy on the clove.”

Check out the recipe here.

Pumpkin Spice Espresso Martini
Photography by Ali Redmond

“Most people don’t realize that the classic Indian spice blend garam masala is very similar to what we call ‘pumpkin spice,’” says Frisch.

In this recipe, swap out the pumpkin pie spice for garam masala “to make a simple syrup, or better yet, infuse it directly into the coconut milk [that the recipe calls for] for a rich, spiced flavor.”

Another take, Frisch suggests, substitute spiced coffee for the recipe’s espresso, using a product like Burlap & Barrel’s Kahawa 1893 African Spice Coffee. “The coffee comes from women farmers in East Africa and is blended with spices inspired by a traditional Kenyan spice coffee,” he explains.

Adding warming spices to coffee is traditional in many places, including Morocco, Mexico and Turkey, he continues. “It makes a great spiced espresso, which would be a perfect base for this cocktail.”

Pro tip: If infusing sounds like too much work, “add a burnt cinnamon stick on the side” as a garnish, suggests Aviram Turgeman, beverage director at Dagon in New York City.

Check out the recipe here.

Pisco Sour cocktail with lime halves and strainer.
Pisco Sour / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

This cocktail is famous for its interplay of sweet and sour flavors, plus the delicate drops of bitters that sit on its frothy top. But it can be served with a little spice.

“Black lime would be a great addition to this, either as a garnish or mixed into the cocktail—or both,” says Frisch. “Peru is also famous for its ajis, aka heirloom chili peppers, so a sprinkle of a hot and sweet chili powder would be a fun addition to this cocktail.”

Pro tip: If you want this drink to lean more savory, add a touch of chaat masala. But be careful. “I’d add a bit—a very small amount, this stuff is potent,” says Naran.

Check out the recipe here.

how to make a mimosa

If you’re looking to give this brunch staple a seasonal update, “add just a touch of ground cloves to give it a little more of a ‘holiday’ vibe,” suggests Frisch. Cloves and orange “are a classic combination,” he adds.

Pro Tip: For a similar effect, he says, try garnishing mimosas with an orange slice studded with whole cloves inserted through the peel.

Check out the recipe here.

Ginger beer final drink in glasses on tray, white background
Photo by Katrin Björk

Spices are great for non-alcoholic beverages like ginger beer, too. For a caffeinated kick, Naram suggests adding some assam tea, which goes well with this recipe’s orange flower water, ginger and cinnamon. Just add a couple teabags to the called-for two quarts of heated water.

For Frisch, it’s the central spice in question he’d swap. Instead of using fresh ginger, he suggests using high-quality ground ginger. “You’ll get a lot more surface area for infusion, and you’ll get a more complex and earthy flavor,” he says.

Pro tip: “I always recommend using high-quality ground cinnamon rather than cinnamon sticks, because ground cinnamon is made from older parts of the tree bark with a more concentrated cinnamon flavor,” says Frisch.

Check out the recipe here.

Paloma cocktail
Paloma cocktail / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Dylan Garret

This simple, refreshing highball is “as easy as cocktails come,” as the recipe states, but if you want to counteract the sweetness of the grapefruit and play up the lime, try a black lime or sumac garnish, suggests Frisch.

Check out the recipe here.

Old Fashioned cocktail

The classic Old Fashioned is among the “easiest to manipulate and riff,” says Aubrey Slater, a New York City-based bartender and beverage director.

One way? Infuse the syrup. “Add our Da Lat Vietnamese coffee rub to the demerara sugar syrup—it pairs beautifully with bourbon and orange,” says Cheney.

Use “spices such as whole star anise, cassia cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, vanilla bean and black pepper,” she says. “Let the spices steep in the syrup for 30 to 45 minutes for the best results before straining and using in the cocktail.”

Second, get creative with a garnish, “such as star anise and cassia cinnamon, or even a piece of a vanilla bean.”

Check out the recipe here.

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