As a travel writer who often journeys solo, I’ve become a big fan of eating at the bar in any dining establishment. That’s because bartenders are an excellent source of information when I’m travelling – and, as it turns out, when dining out at home as well.
I recently got a great tip from Andrew, one of the bartenders at the Empire Diner in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood. The exterior of this once 24-hour, proper American diner has appeared in many movies and TV shows about the city, and in its current markedly fancier incarnation it has been completely renovated to seem lighter and airier inside (no small feat) and is helmed by chef John Delucie (The Waverly Inn, The Lion, Bedford & Co).
My conversation there with Andrew concerned the best ways to infuse vodka or tequila with jalapeño peppers, to make said libations spicy. My past attempts to do so had resulted in various versions of failure – either not spicy enough, or so spicy they had to be dramatically diluted, ruining the intended effects. Professionals such as Andrew, he told me, prefer to “infuse” or “muddle”, but as I am clearly not in his league when it comes to mixology he suggested I use Ancho Reyes Verde (£36.25 for 700ml from The Whisky Exchange), a liqueur made from green chillies that are handpicked in August-October, sun-dried, sliced and macerated in a neutral cane spirit, then left in iron vats for six months. A little blending magic occurs after that, and the green-hued results are bottled and currently changing the life of yours truly.
The stuff is foolproof when it comes to cocktails, so much so that I tend to freestyle it – a few drops in vodka, tequila or gin and it is transformed into a gorgeously spicy concoction with pretty much zero effort. But there are also some recipes on the Ancho Reyes website, with my favourites the Verde Spicy Margarita (one part Ancho Reyes Verde; 1.5 parts tequila; 0.75 parts freshly squeezed lime juice and 0.25 parts agave nectar) and the Ancho Gimlet (one part Ancho Reyes Verde; one part gin; one part freshly squeezed lime juice; 0.5 parts syrup; and one slice of cucumber).