Spiced Spirits

By Roshni Bajaj

Consider the Bloody Mary. Savory, spicy, hearty, hair-of-the dog. Then, forget about it. Move beyond mulled wine and hot buttered rum. How about getting some warmth this winter with cumin-infused vodka, tamarind with tequila, or gingered gin?

I grew up In India. We like our caffeine strong, sweet and milky, our meals robust, complex and spicy, and our desserts sugar-drenched. Lately, in the tonier restaurants in big Indian cities, we also like our cocktails with ingredients that would typically go in curry.

The bustling complexity of my country demands such innovation. Bombay, the place I call home, is a sensory overload. The city attacks at you with aromas, odors, music, traffic, bright lights, billboards, and crowds. An ideal nightcap, or three, then, would be something vigorous that either drowns out the city's complexity, or something basic and pure to wipe the day's slate clean.

In cocktails, spices round out fruit, balance acidity, add layers to flavor. Infused in alcohol, they make clean drinks that can be paired with food as you would wine. At house parties, my bar might contain chiles for pineapple margaritas, coriander-infused gin to be topped with lemon and crushed ice, ginger syrup to go with smoky mezcal, and cayenne to go with mandarin vodka. Or for something simple, my home-infused star-anise white rum, on two cubes of ice.

These drinks may be inspired by India, but like the kathi roll or dosa, they make happy immigrants. I've spent the last year away from home. During these months, homesick moments have had me me running late at night to places with names like Taj Mahal or Taste of India, and after-dinner drinks at a bar involve me convincing bartenders to stock up on cilantro for my spiked lemonade.

None of these drinks came from printed recipes. All of them came from my crazy whim to experiment endlessly, from getting easily weary of tasting the same flavor combinations over and over. It started with one major spice per drink. But lately, I've been thinking of combining multiple spices, as I would in food. If the Nawabs in India had kebabs seasoned with a 100 spices in the 1850s, surely there is room for a dozen in a drink in 2011.

Infused rum

The best part about infusing spirits is that it makes even supermarket brands taste good. Don't bother splurging. Bacardi White or Gold will do. Drop two to three star anise pods into a bottle of  rum. In about a week, you'll have full-bodied flavor, but hey, no harm done in tasting it every day after the third day to find out how much is enough for you.

Pineapple chile margarita

A little before you plan to serve it, make a margarita mix, but with pineapple juice instead of orange liqueur. Slit an Indian or Thai chile (available at ethnic food stores) and drop it into the mix. Let it sit for half an hour at least. Stir with ice and let it chill.

Rim the glass using lime juice, three parts salt and one part cayenne. Pour the margarita into the glass and get ready for some heat.