Bartenders find inspiration for new drinks in all kinds of places. For Elisabeth Forsythe, of San Antonio’s Barbaro restaurant, the recipe for her Peck of Pickled Peppers came out of her garden. After tasting a cranberry liqueur from Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery, Forsythe began to imagine a tangy summer cocktail that combined the liqueur with tequila and a hit of lime juice. Except the lime didn’t work. “Too Cape Cod–y,” she says.
The morning after that unsatisfying experiment, she woke up thinking about the bunch of peppers she’d recently harvested and came upon a solution: she would use a hot pepper shrub to give the drink its sweet-sharp balance. Made from fruits, herbs, or vegetables combined with vinegar and sugar, a shrub is a cocktail component that was popular from colonial times to the twentieth century; shrubs served as a means to preserve fresh fruit before the advent of refrigeration, as well as give acidic body to mixed drinks before fresh citrus was widely available.
Though they aren’t exactly mainstream, shrubs do make an occasional appearance on Texas bar menus. The hot pepper shrub at Barbaro is made from red bell, habanero, serrano, jalapeño, and dried kung pao peppers, some of which come from Forsythe’s garden. The peppers are macerated with equal parts rice vinegar and red wine vinegar for several days, then the liquid is cooked down and sugar is added to create a syrupy consistency.
The foundation of Forsythe’s cocktail is blanco tequila, which is combined with the cranberry liqueur, the pepper shrub, and Texas honey. Served tall, the drink is topped with Topo Chico, the beloved and vigorously carbonated mineral water from Mexico. Fizzy and tart, with a whisper of heat, this mouthwatering drink is a perfect aperitif on a hot day.
Peck of Pickled Peppers
1 1/2 ounces blanco tequila, preferably 100 percent agave
1/2 ounce Hot Pepper Shrub (see below)
1/2 ounce Honey Syrup (see below)
1/4 ounce Clear Creek Distillery Cranberry Liqueur
1 ounce Topo Chico
Combine all ingredients except Topo Chico in a cocktail shaker and shake with ice to chill. Pour over ice in a Collins-style glass, top with Topo Chico, and garnish with a slice of red bell pepper.
Hot Pepper Shrub
2 red bell peppers
2 jalapeño chiles
2 habanero chiles
2 serrano chiles
2 poblano chiles (roasted and peeled)
2 dried kung pao chiles (can substitute any small Asian dried red chile)
2 cups rice vinegar
2 cups red wine vinegar
2 to 3 cups sugar
Remove only the stems of the chiles and then roughly chop. In a sealable glass jar, combine the chiles and the vinegars. Macerate for 5 days, shaking the jar to agitate the contents every day. Starting on day 3, once peppers have begun to soften, muddle the mixture with a muddler or wooden spoon. On day 5, strain out the solids and measure the remaining liquid. Combine that with an equal measure of sugar (usually about two cups) and bring the mixture to a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by a third. Liquid should have a thin, syrupy consistency. If necessary, add more sugar to taste.
1 cup honey
1 cup water
In a small saucepan, warm the honey and water over low heat, stirring to combine. When fully incorporated, remove from heat and allow to cool.