The Oppression of Heat – Texas Style

The Ring of FireI was in Texas this week and was reminded of an old saying: “If I owned both Texas and hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”

I was also reminded that Texans have a unique way of beating the heat, cocktail-wise. While many across the South rely on strong, sweet drinks like the Mint Julep (or Sweet Tea), Texans are prone to mix spice with alcohol and fruit.

There are various theories as to why people in hotter climates eat spicier foods. I like the one that posits that spicy foods make you sweat, keeping you cooler than cold foods. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess that the famous influence of Mexican cuisine in Texas is where this originated.

Regardless of origin, most bars and restaurants I’ve frequented in Houston or Dallas or Austin have had at least one spicy cocktail on their menu. And there’s great variety – margaritas that are ginger, chili, cayenne, or red pepper infused. Spicy Sidecars. An Old Fashioned made with pepper-infused bourbon. And plenty of from-scratch original drinks.

Many years ago, I had cocktail at a Ranch 616 in Austin. They called it The Brush Fire. Made solely with Texas ingredients, it was a great balance of strength, fruit, and spice that made for perfect before (and after) dinner sipping on the patio on a hot summer evening. By the way, if you’re ever in Austin, their chicken-fried steak and shrimp tacos are both uniquely satisfying. My mouth is watering right now, and I’m making a note to book a trip.

Ring of Fire

1.5 oz vodka
1.5 oz Cointreau
1 oz lime juice
1 slice fresh jalapeno

Shake well and strain into a chilled and half-rimmed cocktail glass. Garnish with a new (pretty) jalepeno slice.

Chili Salt (for rim)

1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp celery salt
4 tsp table salt

Mix and store in an empty old spice bottle.

Inspired by this, I worked on a version that met our tenets: minimize special ingredients, avoid excess steps, and simply presentations. I call my version The Ring of Fire, and for reference you’ll notice it is a lot like a Kamikaze – with a twist.

This is a pretty straightforward drink. Traditionally a Kamikaze is equal parts vodka, Triple Sec and lime juice. By reducing the lime juice, The Ring of Fire is a little less tart and (to me) balances the spice and alcohol level out a bit.

Also, Cointreau is higher-proof than most Triple Secs. And I use it here both because I prefer its taste in any cocktail, and because I simplify my bar by only having the one option. I discuss this and options in my post Orange You Glad…

Please experiment with the ratios to see what you prefer (try mine, then try equal parts). Substitute Triple Sec or Curacao if you have some behind your bar. But the biggest place to adjust the profile of this cocktail is with the jalapeno.

There is more capsaicin in the seeds and pith of any pepper. So, if you like more spice, choose a slice with more seeds. And if you want to minimize the heat, seed or even cut the pith out of the slice you put in the shaker. When making this for friends, I will ask them what their spice preference is and adjust on the fly.

Also, the Chili Salt Rim is spicy and salty. As with most rimmed cocktails, my practice is to rim only half of the glass. That way, your guest can take a sip with or without the seasoning as they desire. You can experiment with the chili salt as well by subbing out the celery salt for more table salt, reducing the amount of cayenne, or playing with the ratios overall.

There are so many things to love about Texas, despite the heat. As a people they are fiercely independent, industrious, adventurous, adaptive, and hard-charging while still appreciating the value of a relaxed dinner and drinks with their friends. So much of this comes from the merging of Mexican and American frontier culture over many decades, and it is a lesson that much of the rest of America could learn from today.

America became great by recognizing the best of the people that immigrated to our shores, internalizing it with our unique culture, and making something better than the sum of the parts. This continues to happen all over our country. And we should celebrate it. It is a significant part of what makes this one of the most amazing places to live on Earth.

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A Lost Classic (Brunch Time – Episode 2)

Bronx CocktailI have to credit Eric Felten for turning me on to this cocktail, back in….well, quite a while ago. For those that aren’t familiar, Eric had a cocktail column in The Wall Street Journal for some years called “How’s Your Drink?” and wrote a great eponymous book.

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A Dram for What Ails Ya

PenicillinAs a “practical guide to home bartending” this discussion will choose certain directions.  For example, I tend to focus on ingredients rather than drinks themselves.  I do this because I believe versatility is a core aspect of practicality. But rules were meant to be broken…

My grandmother passed away when I was 20 years old.  Her husband had passed the year before, and I spent her last few months living with her in the house they bought in 1940 and helping out domestically between work and school.

During this time, I found in the kitchen a hand-written recipe card titled “Cough Syrup”.  Scribbled on the card were three ingredients: “2 T whiskey, 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp lemon juice”.  And the instructions, “mix and drink”. This was remarkable since my grandparents were teetotalers. I wish I had kept that card.

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The Comeback ‘Kid’


Thanks for your patience these last few years. While I wrote a number of posts in this time, for personal reasons I decided not to publish for a time. But I can’t express how excited I am to be back!

In this time, I have moved from Raleigh to Las Vegas (among other changes), so please forgive the disconnect in a couple of these posts.  I updated where it made sense, but a few of these I liked to much as they were to change.


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The Oppression of Heat

(In the time since I wrote this, I moved from Raleigh to Las Vegas. Thus the photos.)

Summers are hot in North Carolina.  Normally the heat will make me think of tropical drinks.  And we will take a turn or two here with Tiki drinks.  But not today – when it gets this hot, not even a Goombay Smash will really cool me down.

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2 Southerners Walk into a Cheese Steak Joint…

IMG_4075My middle son and namesake has recently taken a liking to cheese steaks.  We have a couple of reasonably good places in Raleigh, but we’re only a half-day drive from the home of the cheese steak.  And since I used to work in Philadelphia we decided to make a road trip of it.  While it’s not exactly cocktail related, I thought I’d post our findings here.

Paul Jr. has an impressive palate for a picky-eating 14 year old, which made for some fun dialog at and between stops.  And being almost as analytic as me, he suggested an overall 1-10 scale for each sandwich and that we use Anvil’s (his favorite Raleigh spot) as a benchmark, giving it an arbitrary ‘7’ as a starting point.

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Tequila Tasting Results

Send invites to a tequila tasting and the only people that will accept are the type that I wasn’t looking for.  So I promoted a Taco Bar and Margarita Tasting, and I got exactly the consumer panel I sought.  And some good friends to hang with for an evening…

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Donde esta Jose?

I’m no fan of straight whiskey or cognac or tequila tastings.  Because of the aged nature of these liquors, they invariably turn into money tastings.  By that I mean that the $300, 25-year-old bottle almost invariably tastes smoother and richer and sweeter than the $150, 18-year-old one.

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Ice King

Home Made Clear IceLet me start this post by saying that I love the recent (quickly becoming less so) resurgence of cocktail culture.  Many U.S. cities (even small ones) now have at least one “farm-to-fork”….wait…..”grain-to-glass” bar.  Home bartenders are trading in flavored vodkas for small-batch Ryes.  And Amazon’s shelves are filled with great books that revive old recipes and introduce readers to long-forgotten ingredients.  There are even people recreating defunct spirits so that 19th century cocktails can be enjoyed in their original glory.

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Brunch Time — Episode 1

There are as many Bloody Mary recipes as there are drinkers of them.  For the most part they fall into one of 3 categories, none of which I’m a big fan:

The Tomato Crowd.  At its epitome, these guys use tomato juice ice cubes to keep from diluting the sacred tomato.

The Spice Crowd.  You recognize them by the constant sweat on their brow and their insistence that your bloody would be “great if it was just a bit spicier”.

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