Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Smoky Mountain Salamander

So once again, after the Smokemont and the So We're Havin' a BBQ, huh? I find myself returning to my Great Smoky Mountains muse, perhaps even to the initial cocktail idea that got me started on this theme to begin with. I'm not entirely sure what got me going -- it was probably the Courting Rachel recipe mentioned in that NYT article on smoke in cocktails two autumns ago.

Wandering in that misty mental space, it was a hop and a skip. There needed to be a smoke element and a native spirit...and perhaps a native fruit? I started reading up and looking for interesting angles...like, say, how the Smokies are the Salamander Capital of the World. And, huh, one of the native trees featured were these pin cherries circling the balds, the trees some of the quickest to rise up in the wake of forest fires...earning them the nickname fire cherries.


I'd call it the Hellbender, but someone decided to go and make a Scotch tiki drink with that name for a book launch.

Smoky Mountain Salamander
2 oz Salamander Moonshine
shot glass full of sour/pie cherries (8-9)
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz allspice dram
3 dashes Swedish bitters
cherry wood smoke
cherry + cherry pepper garnish

Smoke a chilled cocktail glass with cherry wood and set aside. In a shaker, muddle the sour cherries. Add ice, Salamander Moonshine, vermouth, allspice dram and bitters. Shake to mix and chill. Double-strain into serving glass. Garnish with a moonshine or sour cherry on a pick, encircled by a cherry pepper twist.

This is a difficult cocktail to write about: it's on the borderline between passable and don't post, but at the same time I experienced some magic moments with it too. It all boils down to how much you like the flavor of peppers in your drink. But for however much pepper flesh is the dominant flavor, everything else rallies to round it into something savory, bright and scintillating. The odd herbals offered by the Swedish bitters might even get you to wondering if there was a secret ingredient to the Salamander Moonshine, or at least a bit of brimstone.

You may want to serve this on the rocks with the muddled cherries because their flavor better emerges over time and helps the balance. Whatever you do, don't skimp on the Swedish bitters: their aloe note makes the pepper flavor quite palatable. Though for all that's said about bitters being a crucial binding element in cocktails, it's the vermouth which knots the bow here, reaching out to bright cherry on one side while snaring the more savory elements with its herbs and aromatics on the other. The cherry wood smoke, beyond being a nice little touch, situates the cocktail in a barbecue context such that the heat make more sense on the palate. And the allspice dram? A nice brooding bit of dark-flavored sweet spice. Pimento spice matched with pimento/cherry pepper heat matched with cherry smoke matched with cherry sour.

Salamander Moonshine
4-5 (hot) cherry or red fresno peppers - stemmed, seeded, quartered
1 tsp allspice berries, crushed
1/2 tsp roasted chicory root
3"x1/2" orange zest
1 cup moonshine

Add all to a mason jar. Store in a cool dark location for two weeks (or less if your desired heat level is reached), shaking daily. Strain off the large particles with a sieve and use a coffee filter to get the minute bits remaining. Store in a bottle/jar and let rest in a cool cabinet a week before using to let the flavors mellow and meld.