My tolerance for spicy foods is basically nonexistent though I've been challenging it diligently ever since leaving for college. This tends to be pretty typical when you're Eastern European and grow up primarily with salt, (small amounts of) black pepper, parsley and dill. Somehow, I went from a fairly limited spice exposure to deciding upon Mexican as my favorite food category. I love the brightness and variety of the seasoning and the way the different ingredients balance each other out if mixed in just the right way. While I prefer mixology over cooking, I appreciate the cross-functional concepts you can apply if you're avidly learning both skills.
I chose to create this drink to channel that flavor vibrance and to find a way to enjoy spice in liquid form as much as I've grown to approach it in cuisine. My thought process led me to the classic screwdriver cocktail - a drink that's very straightforward but often leaves you wanting. I aimed to take the concept of vodka and orange juice and to dress it up with better ingredients and a fiery kick. Perhaps the most critical way to improve on the classic is to pick the right vodka.
Though vodka is often disregarded as a spirit that is simply neutral, I believe that a good vodka will disappear amidst other ingredients while a great vodka will blend smoothly and add flavor interest. I was thrilled to incorporate BET Vodka, a particularly great Wisconsin spirit made from co-op grown sugar beets. It starts smooth and therefore plays nicely with most cocktail ingredients, but also adds a bit of a peppery body and a lingering vanilla sweetness. I don't often get excited about vodka, but BET left quite an impression with both its flavor profile and beautiful minimalist branding.
Instead of orange juice from a carton, I used the juice of an entire fresh navel orange. It takes a bit more effort but it is so incredibly worth it. Not only is fresh juice additive-free, but the flavor is so much brighter immediately after extraction. Oranges are also fairly easy to find throughout the year and affordable to grab in bulk. If you'd like to make this drink for a group and don't have an efficient way of juicing fresh oranges, grab some freshly squeezed juice from the grocery store on the same day you make this cocktail. Just remember that you'll still need fresh orange peel for the syrup.
To finish the drink, I crafted a syrup with orange peel and habanero pepper. Adding the spice element in syrup form gave me plenty of control over the final flavor balance of the cocktail. I worked with incredibly spicy habanero peppers, so I just added one to my syrup for a minute to get the level of spice I was looking for. Make sure to taste the syrup as it's simmering. If you'd like more spice, simply throw in another pepper or leave the one pepper in for a little longer.
The resulting cocktail is bursting with citrus freshness and a pleasant spice finish. It's perfect for a hot summer day but would be equally lovely to break up the gloom of a rainy autumn or cold winter.
The Vice Grip
- 2 oz vodka
- Juice of 1 fresh orange
- 0.25 oz orange habanero syrup*
Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into chilled glasses. Garnish with a habanero pepper and enjoy on a scorching summer day.
*To make orange habanero syrup, combine 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, peel of 1 orange (try to avoid the pith) in a small saucepan and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1 chopped habanero pepper and simmer for another minute. Strain out the solids and store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. The pepper oil will separate to the surface so be sure to give the jar of syrup a shake before using it next.