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What makes cocktails spicy?

Many cocktails contain spices and other ingredients that give them a kick of heat and a spicy flavor. The spiciness of cocktails can come from various sources, ranging from hot peppers and chili spices to ginger and black pepper. When used judiciously, spices can add an exciting layer of flavor and sensation to cocktails. However, it’s important to understand how different spices impact the flavor profile and perceive spiciness differently.

What makes spices spicy?

The spicy heat of spices like chili peppers is primarily caused by chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin are the most common capsaicinoids that create the burning sensation associated with spicy chili peppers. When these compounds come into contact with sensory neurons in the mouth, they are perceived as heat and pain. The degree of spiciness depends on the type and amount of capsaicinoids present.

Other spices like black pepper, ginger, and horseradish contain compounds like piperine, gingerol, and allyl isothiocyanate respectively, which also stimulate nerve endings in the mouth to produce a milder spicy or pungent sensation. So using these spices in cocktails can make them taste spicy, pungent, or give them a burning aftertaste.

Common spicy ingredients used in cocktails

Fresh chili peppers

Fresh chili peppers like jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos are commonly used to spice up cocktails. They can be muddled, juiced, or added as a garnish to provide direct heat. Cocktails like margaritas, bloody marys, and micheladas often incorporate fresh chilies. The capsaicinoids are released when the peppers are damaged or cut, causing the burning sensation.

Hot sauces

Hot pepper sauces are a very direct way to make cocktails spicy. A few dashes of sauces like Tabasco, sriracha, or chili oil can instantly add a spicy kick. Cayenne pepper hot sauces tend to have more vinegar taste, while habanero or ghost pepper sauces impart tropical fruitiness.


Dried spices commonly used to spice up cocktails include:

  • Cayenne pepper powder
  • Chili powder
  • Chipotle powder
  • Ancho chili powder
  • Red pepper flakes

These ground spices add a direct heat as well as a complexity of flavor like smokiness and fruitiness.


Prepared horseradish and freshly grated horseradish root add a strong pungency similar to wasabi. The chemical allyl isothiocyanate stimulates the sinuses and is perceived as heat. Horseradish is used in Bloody Mary drinks and savory cocktails.


Fresh ginger, ginger syrup, ginger beer, and ginger liqueur can make cocktails taste spicy. The compound gingerol activates nerve endings to give ginger its pungent, peppery heat. Ginger is used in Moscow mules, gin cocktails, and tropical drinks.

Black pepper

Freshly ground black pepper adds a strong, peppery spice. The chemical piperine gives black pepper its pungency. Rims can be rolled in black pepper or it can be muddled in the cocktail. Black pepper is often used in savory cocktails.

How different spices stimulate spiciness

Spice Active Compound Flavor Profile Spiciness Level
Chili pepper Capsaicin Hot, bright High
Black pepper Piperine Pungent, peppery Mild-Moderate
Ginger Gingerol Pungent, sweet Mild-Moderate
Horseradish Allyl Isothiocyanate Wasabi-like High

As shown in the table, different spices contain their own compounds that stimulate nerve receptors and elicit a spicy sensation. But the intensity and type of spiciness varies based on the specific compound and concentration.

Techniques for adding spices to cocktails

There are several methods bartenders use to incorporate spices into cocktails while controlling their intensity and achieving balance with other ingredients:


Muddling is the direct crushing and mixing of ingredients like fresh chili peppers, ginger slices or black peppercorns in the bottom of the glass. This releases their oils and flavors. The drink can then be built on top. Muddling gives maximum spice intensity.

Rims and garnishes

Spices like cayenne, salt, pepper or chili powder can be spread on the outer rim of the glass to give a spicy kick on the first sip only. Garnishing drinks with slices or whole peppers is another way to provide some spice without it becoming overpowering.

Infusing liquors

Letting vodka, rum or other spirits infuse for several days with chili peppers, horseradish or ginger allows them to extract the spicy flavors at a controlled level. The infused liquor can then be mixed into spicy cocktails.

Spice mixes and syrups

Mixing spices into simple syrup allows the heat to integrate evenly into the cocktail. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and black pepper make warming syrups. Chili peppers and ginger make spicy syrups that can add customizable heat.

Bitters and tinctures

Spice concentrated bitters and tinctures are an easy way to dash spiciness into cocktails without overdoing it. Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters have mild spice, while companies make habanero, ginger and chili bitters specifically for spicy cocktails.

Balance is key for spicy cocktails

While spices can provide an exciting kick, spicy heat can quickly overwhelm other flavors in a cocktail if not balanced properly. Here are some tips for balance:

– Start with small amounts and increase slowly to the desired spice level

– Pair hot spices with sweet ingredients to balance out the heat

– Add acidic ingredients like citrus juice to brighten and even out the spiciness

– Use cream, egg whites or syrups to smooth out and dilute some heat

– Choose lower proof alcohols since high proof intensifies spicy burn

– Use ice to help cool down and temper the intensity of heat

– Consider how different spices complement specific liquors like gin, rum, tequila and whiskey

Popular spicy cocktail recipes

Here are some widely enjoyed classic and contemporary cocktails featuring spices:


The margarita is a tart, refreshing classic that balances sweet orange liqueur and lime juice with salt and optional jalapeño for a smarting kick. Good tequila is essential.

Bloody Mary

The savory Bloody Mary mixes tomato juice with Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, Tabasco and other spices like celery salt and black pepper for a flavorful, peppery brunch cocktail.

Moscow Mule

This vintage cocktail combines vodka’s heat with spicy ginger beer and lime juice served in a copper mug. The ginger adds pleasant spice aromatics.


A Mexican beer cocktail made spicy and savory with lime juice, chili sauce, Worcestershire, and other spices rimmed along the glass. It’s a great way to add complexity to beer.


A contemporary whiskey cocktail that uses spicy ginger syrup and Islay Scotch to create an intriguing blend of smoky, sweet and spicy flavors. A unique twist on an Old Fashioned.

Bloody Maria

A southwestern twist on the Bloody Mary that substitutes tequila for vodka and adds tajín chili powder to the salt rim for extra spice and zest. Great for brunch or day drinking.

Cocktail spice safety

While spicy cocktails can be delicious, be aware that consuming large amounts of capsaicinoids found in hot peppers and spices can potentially cause:

– Stomach irritation, heartburn or ulcers in some individuals

– Allergic reactions in those with spice hypersensitivities

– Momentary throat and nasal passages irritation

– Coughing or choking if inhaled accidentally

So enjoy spicy cocktails, but partake in moderation! Stick to 1-2 drinks max and see how your body responds. And as always, never drink and drive.


Adding dashes, rims and infusions of pungent spices can transform an ordinary cocktail into something bold, complex and thrilling. The array of peppers, roots, barks and seeds provide myriad options for tweaking drink recipes with their unique flavonoids and heat profiles. But balance and moderation is key, as too much spiciness can overwhelm the palate. With the right combinations, though, spicy cocktails deliver excitement for the tastebuds and fun for the senses. Cheers!