Humans have used chillis for over 6 millennia to add heat and flavour to foods, but also to keep food from spoiling. Over the years new hybrids and and varieties have evolved or been cultivated to create more than 4000 chilli varieties with different appearance, heat levels and flavours.
Few spices have as much of a cult following as the chilli pepper. Much of the hype revolves around the quest to find or grow chillis that have very high heat levels. The best known ingredient responsible for the heat or spice is capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin) although there are others, and the heat, pungency or spiciness is measured by the Scoville Heat organoleptic scale, which ranges from 0 to over 3 million. Mildly spicy peppers like the ‘green’ or bell pepper rate around 100, while pepper sprays used by law enforcement agencies rates at 1 500 000 or higher and is simply intolerable for humans.
When we set out to make the very best chilli vodka we could, our goal was clear: “authentic chilli taste, but no tears and no sweat” and with the target cocktail unquestioningly being the Bloody Mary. Our Chilli Vodka now rates about 25000 SHU’s – about the spiciness of a stuffed jalopeno pepper, although some of the early batches were, frankly, quite warming!
It was surprisingly complex to develop the recipe. We tried more than a dozen chilli pepper types in formulating our recipe: not all turned out to be suitable for a spirit-based drink. Ripening changes the heat level and if the ripening process is too slow, moulds and soft spots can develop. Completely dried and powdered chillis add heat but little flavour; oven-dried chillis can develop a smoky flavour, chillis that are unripe can add unpleasant vegetable tastes, and some chillies that are great to cook with or eat are horrible in alcohol. But after a process of elimination and, at times painful, tasting our job was done. A chilli vodka that is not just hot, but tastes of chilli. Not too hot: not too mild. And just perfect in a Bloody Mary.