When posed with an impossible decision, I say proudly, refuse to choose. Who could favor the soaring gulls over the roiling sea? Late eighties Billy Joel over Elton John? This is how I found myself with a frozen piña colada in one hand and a spicy margarita in the other. Staring out at the Atlantic ocean as the late summer sun slunk across a fuchsia-streaked sky, I resolved that a crab boil at Rippers was no place to practice restraint. And at that moment I began my quest to bring a little of that heat home with me.
The following day I found myself landlocked and trolling the bright aisles of Food Bazaar, greedily on the trail of my own irresistible spicy tequila creation. Habanero peppers are as brilliantly inky as an orange highlighter or a rogue sunbeam in October, and their heat is as warm as the longing for summer in the dark heart of February. Of all the sweetly spicy peppers I foolishly sampled that day, their flavor was subtle but still scorching and fruity, perfectly suited for a bright citrus cocktail.
What You'll Need
If you can't find a habanero, or its sister, the Scotch bonnet, seek out the hottest jalapeño you can bear. The hotter the pepper, the shorter the infusion time, and the less time for the tequila to pick up any unwanted green vegetal flavor the thick skin of a jalapeño can impart. I found red jalapeños to be particularly piquant. For a smoky, almost mezcal flavor, consider roasting your peppers before you begin.
In addition to peppers, you'll need a liter of decent tequila. Nothing too fancy, but do use one that says 100% agave on the label. I began with the crisp flavor of blanco, but feel free to experiment with a reposado if you so desire, especially once you've gotten familiar with the flavor of your peppers.
A Few Tips
Wear plastic gloves if you have them, and clean all surfaces and knife thoroughly with soapy water after handling. Don't touch your eyes if you've been slicing peppers.
Unarm each pepper (you're only going to need two or three) by destemming and scooping out all seeds. This not only allows for a civilized infusion pace, but also an easy strain.
The truth is this is no exact science, so be brave. You must try your peppers. Keep a glass of milk or a sixer of Tecate on hand and consider hiring the kid next door as your designated driver. Set aside a whole day to pull smugly off the tequila every hour or so and take notes as the flavor develops. Even between habaneros there are ranges of heat depending on the specific variety, grower and origin.
If you're reading this blog, regular margaritas and gimlets may no longer impress your friends, but if you keep several infusion varieties in the pantry, you can trot them out after dinner for a fiery debate or serve it in a cocktail first thing. If you're growing peppers in your garden this summer, this is the perfect way to show off your hard work.
Just make sure to label and date the jars so no one mistakes your spicy brew for bathtub moonshine or vinegar for salad dressing. The tequila will stay vibrant for about a month but will rarely languish that long.
I find the sweet and sour notes of fresh grapefruit juice to perfectly complement a spicy tequila. Prepare your guests an icy-cold cocktail made with mint syrup, grapefruit juice, and your habanero tequila. Rim the edge of the glass with salt.
This infusion is also perfect for adding another layer of flavor to the classic Bloody Maria.
Are you a fan of spicy tequila? Have you tried making it at home?