The spicy cocktail has ventured a long way from the mouthwatering, original Bloody Mary, cropping up on menus and captivating the craft scene with enlivening, unorthodox options for the daring drinker. We’ll admit to being fearful at first, but through our “research,” we found that these beverages unleash a savory, delicious balance of flavors that even the timid can appreciate and enjoy. Take a cue from three local bartenders who’ve crafted a wide variety of hot-to-trot libations, and spice up your life!
By Liz Petoniak / Photographs by Michael Fornataro
“Spicy drinks are playing a major role in the cocktail world,” explains Isaac Merz, head bartender at Altius. “They represent a lot of possibility and people in Pittsburgh becoming more adventurous. They’re exciting and there’s a sense of danger.” After sampling two of Merz’s spicy beverages — the “Dazed and Infused,” crafted with 100 proof vodka, infused with mango, pineapple, and habanero; and his Jalapeño Cucumber Mint Margarita (pictured here) — we know exactly what he means. These cocktails are dangerously delicious. The latter libation exhibits three layers of flavor: strong notes of jalapeño from the infused blanco el Jimador tequila he infuses himself, a softness from the cucumber, and a bright, sugary element from the mint. It’s savory, yet refreshing, and pairs perfectly with salty and light plates, like ceviche, oysters, or a fresh summertime salad. For those interested in trying their hand at home infusions, Merz advises that carefully cleaning the pepper to remove its seeds and ribs allows for greater flavor control. He says, “People can lose sight of the true essence of the pepper’s flavor. They have tons of heat, but if they are appropriately used, then you get the best of its sweet flavor.”
Altius, 1230 Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington. 412.904.4442.
Describing the spicy phenomenon as a new frontier in the craft cocktail realm, Cat Cannon, bartender at Union Pig and Chicken, says, “It’s a bit of a novelty. Not everyone has tried it yet. Everyone’s had a sweet cocktail and not everyone wants dessert all the time.” But dessert with our drink? That’s something we can get in to. Enter the U.S.S. Nimitz, created by Cannon for Wigle Whiskey’s “Girl Scout Cookie Cocktail Competition” in conjunction with Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania. Made with Wigle White Wheat Whiskey, Cannon’s own smoked chipotle cayenne simple syrup, egg white, Wigle Mole bitters, and muddled Luxardo cherries (and a few for garnish), this potion is meant for sipping with bites of a Thin Mint cookie. She says, “Using unaged whiskey allows for a more adaptable base. It adds a whole new flavor to break the barrier of people only associating tequila and Mexican food with heat.” U.S.S. Nimitz boasts a creamy sweetness and an energizing, summery taste, with the chipotle cayenne kicking in at the end like a sneaky, though welcome, surprise. The cookie cools the fire and satisfies our sweet tooth!
Union Pig and Chicken, 220 N Highland Ave., East Liberty. 412.363.7675.
If we return to the beginning of the spicy cocktail craze, the classic Bloody Mary serves as the original hottie, holding down the fort of the savory, heat-filled niche for years. Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille has seemingly perfected the art with its famous version of the drink that has tongues wagging across the city. Bartender Brian Brinkley assembled two for us upon our visit, beginning each with a jalapeño- and Canadian bacon-infused vodka for a smoky, rich base and complementary partner for the restaurant’s signature mix. Comprised of more than 36 ingredients, including 17 different spices, the concoction brings complex, full flavor with buildable heat. “It’s unique and it’s not your standard mix,” says Wholey. “It has so much more body and spice.” Brinkley then garnished the mixture with fresh celery, lemon, lime, a pickle around the rim, and olives. Two Baja shrimp from the Cortez Sea in Mexico reside on one glass, and on the other, a deep-fried soft shell crab. Depending on the time of year, Wholey sources his crab from Florida, the Carolinas, or Maryland. He says, “The seafood toppings are the some of the best in the world. They’re very clean and fresh tasting.” To that we can attest. The crispy soft-shell crab melts in your mouth, making it one of the many highlights experienced while devouring this extraordinary Bloody Mary that’s practically a meal in itself.
Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille, 2106 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412.904.4509.