Spicy margarita cocktail serve

Blogs & Inspiration

Cocktails and Spice

Singapore-based drink-smith, Richard Gillam, shares his tips on incorporating spice flavours of Southeast Asia into cocktails.

Author: Richard Gillam, Award-Winning Bartender & Hospitality Consultant

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes


I find it more than a little surprising that in a region like Southeast Asia, where many foods are dominated by chilli, there is always as much use of chilli in drinks. In Europe, people are well acquainted with combinations like chocolate & chilli or passion fruit & chilli, and it’s used regularly in many cocktails. I love using chilli in serves to give that extra boost to the experience, the tingle on the lips and the warmth in the mouth, but they do require understanding and careful preparation. A little too much can ruin the experience.


To begin with, play around with drinks you’re already familiar with; any classics or signatures that contain ingredients from the ginger family. That’s ginger, galangal, turmeric, cardamom and spices that you may already be comfortable using. The simplest and safest (in the not-burning-taste-buds kind of way) method is to use a little chilli powder in a rim of salt, sugar or both. You could also use some of the now widely available Bittermen’s Habanero Shrub. This is used like bitters and a couple of drops will add a delicate heat to any cocktail.


I’ve combined different methods before in a single cocktail. One example is a simple kaffir lime leaf, galangal and lemongrass infused Don Julio Blanco made into a Margarita, or MargariThai, with a couple of drops of Habanero Shrub. Finish off with salt, sugar and chilli rim on half the glass and a sliced chilli rubbed on the other half. Sharp, refreshing and spicy. One of the most impressive chilli cocktails I’ve come across was a few years ago in London, created by Salvatore Calabrese. It used vanilla vodka, elderflower liqueur, honey, lime and chilli. The delicate elderflower and vanilla are enhanced by the fresh sliced chilli, rather than eclipsed. I’ve also become a fan of a drink called the Spicy Hachimitsu which uses a Japanese liqueur called umeshu, citrus, vodka, cucumber and wasabi. It’s gorgeous.


Another one of my creations, called the MangAroma, is a mix of calvados, orange-infused vodka, mango, passion fruit and chilli served in a tin can with a rosemary and marjoram fog. Sounds fancy but it was really quite simple to deliver. The thick texture of the mango was a great ‘platform’ to bring out the chilli flavours and the pairing is common in Thai cuisine, so I thought it was a good place to start. I found that the popular flavours (mango and passion fruit) were the ‘hook’ to get people to try this drink. The less well known or seemingly strange ingredients, such as chilli, Calvados and rosemary fog had more appeal and intrigue once they had a familiar and ‘safe’ point of reference.

That’s one of my pieces of advice - give the guest a comfortable stepping stone to get them started on their path of liquid discovery. Of course, there is always room for more in-depth and geeky conversations; with the right crowd and a lot of research, one could explore the perfect type of chilli for each cocktail, the Scoville Scale (how chilli heat is measured) or the best capsaicinoid extraction methods etc., but that’s a topic for another day. Whatever happens, I sure hope to see more experimentation with chilli in drinks.


  • Chilli gives an extra boost to the experience, the tingle on the lips and the warmth in the mouth.
  • All chilli serves require understanding and careful preparation.
  • A simple way to start experimenting with chilli is to use a little chilli powder in a rim of salt, sugar or both.
  • Give your guests familiar flavours like mango as a stepping stone to get them started.
  • Experiment with familiar drinks that contain ingredients from the ginger family and use bitters like Habanero Shrub for a touch of heat.

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