It is said that variety is the spice of life, but sometimes change itself doesn't provide quite enough kick. Instead, people add extreme sports like skydiving or Zorbing. Others travel, searching for inspiration in the excitement of faraway lands. And there are still others touched by equal measures of bravery, intestinal fortitude and sheer insanity who light metaphorical fires in their bellies through the application of massive amounts of Scoville units – the metric used to measure the heat of a chile. Not surprisingly, liquor distillers have stepped up to this hot plate to service potential customers who are dedicated to experiencing the heat of a thousand suns on their tongues.
Virtually every spicy spirit on the market qualifies as an infusion – leeching its heat from one or more varieties of hot peppers. But each distiller takes a different approach to bringing the spice. Some, like Absolut Peppar, first bottled in 1986, use the heat as an accent. Others are more than happy to put searing flames to taste buds, using scotch bonnet and habanero peppers like a Bieber-loving tween uses glitter. Either way, they can make for great cocktails, not to mention bar bets that seem like a good idea at the time.
Masochistic games, aside, what's most surprising with this category liquor is actually how versatile it are. Since the vast majority of these spirits are vodka or tequila based, they can easily serve as shooters. Bloody Marys are a natural fit as well. But the chile-born heat works in a wide range of drinks. Screwdrivers benefit from a spike of heat to balance out the sweet citrus. Martinis get more interesting with fire and a few olives. Even the Cosmo could deal with a drop of the spicy stuff to give it a refresh. Mixologists themselves are recognizing just how handy a dose of heat can be in cocktails, infusing their own spirits with proprietary mixes of chiles. Luckily for the rest of us, we don't have to don latex gloves to mix up our own – we can just bounce on down to the liquor store and pull one of these bottles off the shelf.
Thatcher's Organic Tres Chiles Liqueur – The mildest of the bunch, Thatcher's prides itself on complex flavor and an uber-green pedigree. It succeeds on both fronts, bringing a tree-hugging sensibility to the distilling process and an intriguing sweet and spicy taste to the bottle. The liqueur itself is unexpectedly fruity, with a whole lot of strawberry up front, followed by a slow burn that never really develops into any real heat despite claiming jalapeno, serrano and habanero peppers in its heritage. On its own, it's worth a few sips. But topping off a margarita or daiquiri is where it really shines. In other words – it's worth taking to Daytona for spring break.
Hot Monkey Hot Pepper Infused Vodka – Upping the ante with five different peppers, the monkey brings the heat. Just catching a whiff of the stuff is enough to start clearing sinuses. The essential oils from the chiles have obviously made a home in the bottle, as evidenced by the coppery color and oily texture. Each sip hammers home one fact – you're drinking a whole lot of Scovilles. There's nothing subtle here – the booze hits your taste buds like a bunker buster. The alcohol clears away the heat quickly though, leaving behind a smoky chipotle flavor and a satisfying warmth that seems to say “that wasn't so bad. Of course you want more.” And then it proceeds to slap you around all over again. The vodka itself is extremely clean and rich, with a crispness rare in even the highest end brands. Interestingly, the smoky flavor even makes it an odd stand in for scotch in some cocktails, though the heat will remind you in a hurry that no kilts are involved.
Mazama Infused Pepper Vodka – A small batch infused vodka, Mazama mixes sweet and hot peppers to come up with a happy medium. The same coppery color as Hot Monkey, Mazama doesn't quite approach the towering inferno level. Instead, it delivers a semi-sweet heat that lingers long after you swallow. Because of those sugary notes, it drops into sweet drinks easily, and was almost tailor made to match up with mango juice. The vodka base has an almost creamy mouth-coating texture, which is likely why the heat is somewhat blunted. Regardless of how it does it, though, the bottle is a crowd-pleaser, especially once the weather heats up. After all, what could be better than shorts, sun dresses and spicy Tiki drinks?
Tabasco Spicy Tequila – In a class of its own, Tabasco Spicy Tequila approaches WMD status. Combining the heat of tequila with the impact of Tabasco, it's the ideal bottle for anyone who can't get enough peppery burn. Sure, the pepper-heads in the crowd may scoff at Tabasco's relatively mild reputation, but the infused tequila and Tabasco mix to form a searingly brutal lug of screaming heat. The mixto tequila base has a surprisingly clean agave flavor despite its lack of a pedigree, not to mention the hot sauce doing its best to flambe any subtleties out of the way, but make no mistake – shots of this taken without salt, lime or chaser will be met with nigh immediate regret. In cocktails, a little goes a long way, though it does play nicely with citrus. A splash makes for an incredibly tasty paloma, though more than a splash generally makes for a very unhappy drinker. But for those looking to take their palate to DEFCON 1, this is the one to unleash. Just make sure to warn local hazmat crews.