How To Make Spicy Cocktails With Hot Sauce

Tips from the experts on how to heat things up at home

You know what they say: If you can't take the heat, then get out of the kitchen. But if you can, then you might as well add booze. Such is the philosophy of bartenders and hot sauce aficionados across New York City and beyond. And for the greater good of your home entertaining, we've picked their brains for insider tips and tricks for incorporating hot sauce into cocktails, complete with a definitive collection of recipes all along the spice spectrum.

At HEATONIST, an independent hot sauce purveyor with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan (and a cult following throughout the city), after-hours cocktail experimentation is a ritual, and trial and error combined with intimate knowledge of spice factor has yielded quite a few interesting drinks over time. Spokesperson and buyer Rebecca King shares the shop's secret: whole ingredients. "We love making things from scratch. A lot of the ingredients you'll already find in your pantry, and while some of the steps seem tedious, you'll be able to taste the difference."

As a bonus, making your own syrups and such will likely leave you with leftovers to use in the immediate future. The HEATONIST drink masterminds make one whiskey cocktail with a Lapsang souchong simple syrup, which they heat up by then adding ghost pepper hot sauce and Bee Local hot honey.

Matt Piacentini, who owns NYC bar The Up & Up, weighs in on hot sauce cocktail strategies at home, "Generally, I find that many hot sauces add a savory quality that I'm usually not looking for. To work around this, I either go for a very hot sauce so I can use less, or I mix in something else that's spicy, like ginger or black pepper. Of course, if you're going for a meaty, savory flavor, then using a flavorful sauce will work well." 

The Up & Up serves a habanero sauce-laced tequila cocktail, and it's in good company as far as spicy cocktails go. Just as everyone has a go-to spirit, people feel strongly about their hot sauce of choice. Valentina lovers can take a hint from Dream Baby in NYC, where a few dashes of the Guadalajara-made sauce make their way into an eponymous drink, or the michelada at ATLA. Cholula fans will delight in the Torchlight at Middle Branch just a couple miles away (see the recipe), and Crystal meets pisco, tequila, pickle brine and bell pepper for a savory cocktail uptown at Seamstress.

If you're a first-timer, King recommends setting a target spice level and testing the waters as you go. "Decide how spicy you want it, and then look for sauces in that range. You'll want a sauce that is on the thinner side and not chunky. This generally means a more vinegary sauce, but if you're not partial to vinegar, look for sauces with fruit in them to balance out the flavor. Start with a few shakes and move up to teaspoons from there." 

Céline Bossart is a freelance spirits and travel writer with an affinity for 50/50 gin martinis and Kate Moss anecdotes. Follow her on Instagram at @celineb0ss.