Review: The Spice Lab Special Touch Premium Mixology Case

Nothing’s more fun than ordering a high-end cocktail at a bar and receiving it with a wacky ingredient or garnish — maybe a flaming star anise or an edible flower, slowly leeching its color into your drink.

Well good news, campers: Now you can recreate some of these experiences at home, thanks to The Spice Lab’s “Special Touch” Premium Mixology Case.

It’s a very simple idea: This attache-style case contains a dozen rare or high-end garnishes, each provided whole and packaged in its own individual plastic case. The dozen includes the following: cardamom seeds, giant coffee beans, cocoa seed, allspice (whole), star anise, dried kumquat, juniper berries (whole), mini cinnamon cassia sticks, whole mace, and three dried (whole) flowers: hibiscus, Persian rose, and mallow blossom.

The case includes a deck of cards, one giving some basic usage ideas for each ingredient. The top lid includes five barware pieces: a jigger, bar spoon, tongs, peeler, and a cylindrical grater for dried spices.

What can you do with all of these? The Spanish-designed kit is designed for use with vermouth, rum, and gin, and just about all of these garnishes pair well with gin concoctions, particularly the Spanish staple of gin and tonic. Pick any of the flowers and drop one in your glass to open up new aromatics and give your drink a breathtaking color. Other ingredients, like kumquat and mace, present more of a challenge. And of course, items like star anise, cocoa bean, and cinnamon are all very versatile, well being the world of gin and tonic. From top to bottom, all the ingredients are extremely high end — but remember, dried spices and flowers will lose flavor and potency over time, so don’t be afraid to use them liberally.

At $200, this is an awfully luxe kit, but if you don’t need the full collection, Special Touch offers some simpler kits that are more targeted (and which cost quite a bit less), and individual botanicals can be purchased as well. My only complaint: The case itself is a bit flimsy, though it’s decked out in leather and metal trim.

That aside, I know I’m having fun with this kit. Order a drink at my house these days and who knows what kind of garnish you’ll get!

A- / $200 / thespicelab.com

How to Use Infused Ice to Upgrade Your Cocktails

Anise Infused Ice

Infused ice is a fun way to add flavor to your drinks and add an eye-pleasing touch. To make infused ice, start by using distilled water to mitigate cloudiness. Add any fruit or spice (such as whole star anise, cardamom pods, or cinnamon stick pieces) to water in a pan and boil for a few minutes. This will infuse the ice with the flavor of the additive and also blanch fruits like strawberries, pineapples, and cranberries enough for them to be safely frozen. It’s the same process for preparing fruit to be put into gelatin. Cool the water. Then place a piece of the boiled fruit or a chunk of the spice used to flavor the water in each section of an ice tray. Fill the tray with the cooled water and freeze. Be aware that some spices like cloves, cinnamon, and anise may turn the water brown. The flavor is still packed inside.

Next use the ice in any beverage—alcoholic or not—in which you want to add that fruit or spice flavoring. For example: Throw a few strawberry or raspberry infused ice cubes in an iced tea for a nice fruit flavor which intensifies as the ice melts. Consider using a cinnamon, nutmeg, or anise cube in a rocks glass with your favorite whiskey. The trick is to not overdo the number or intensity of the ice cubes or the spices can become overwhelming.

Want to give it a try? Here are two professional cocktails from Stoli’s Elit Vodka that use infused ice which will give you an idea of how to be creative with the stuff.

Frozen TerrainFrozen Terrain
Created by Whitney Morrow, Beverage Director at Drumbar, Chicago
1 part Elit Vodka
½ part St. George Terroir Gin
¾ part Lillet Blanc
¼ part pear liqueur
1 cinnamon ice cube

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a rocks glass over a 2” x 2” cinnamon ice cube. To make the cinnamon ice cube: place 7 sticks of cinnamon into 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Place into large format ice tray with one sprig of rosemary and a thinly sliced piece of pear. Freeze.

Tickled PinkTickled Pink
Created by Ashtin Berry, Bartender at Ace Hotel Nola, New Orleans
¾ part Elit Vodka
½ part cranberry syrup (equal parts cranberry juice and sugar, cooked on low to thicken into syrup)
¼ part lemon
2 dashes orange bitters
champagne or club soda

Shake all ingredients with cranberry infused ice (made from cranberry juice) and strain into a coupe or flute. Top with bubbles (either champagne or club soda) and add a couple of cranberries and an orange twist.

Review: Spiced Up Bourbon Barrel Chocolate Chili Sugar

Want to spice up a wintry cocktail? Try this new rimming powder from Spiced Up, which is made with a blend of Valrhona cocoa powder from France, Demerara pure cane sugar, and bourbon-barrel aged chili powder.

Spiced Up Bourbon Barrel Chocolate Chili Sugar offers fairly large granules that require significant liquid to adhere to the rim of a glass. Their impact is moderate but definitely present, with all three major components — cocoa, sugar, and spice — making their presence known, and in that order, with light chocolate leading quickly to brown-sugar sweetness, and a warming spice bringing up the back end. Lick a bunch off your glass and you can get quite a lasting heat from it.

There’s not much of an impact from the bourbon barrel treatment on the chili powder, but that might be asking for too much from a garnish that’s already putting in overtime. All in all, it’s a nice addition to the bartender’s arsenal.

B+ / $9 per 4 oz packet / spicedup.rocks

Review: Twang Beer Salt

It’s common to jam a wedge of lime into your beer when sipping on a Mexican lager. Others prefer a lick of salt instead of the sweet-and-sour kick of citrus, and that’s why Twang — “The Original Premium Beersalt” — exists.

Twang, which also makes a line of margarita salts, sells five different flavors of beer salt (none of which are just “salt”), in little bottles that you apply directly to the glass or the rim of your bottle as you drink. New to the game is its Clamato Chili-Lime Salt, which is sold in a small can and which is designed for Micheladas, Bloody Maries, and other tomato-centric beverages. The little bottles are resealable and portable… and should last for quite a while in normal use.

Ideally no beer you drink should need manipulating in order to be palatable, but I know you don’t always have a choice of what to sip on — or maybe you just want to try something new for a change. Either way, keep reading for reviews of all five beer salts, plus the Clamato version.

Twang Michelada Especial Beer Salt – There’s a nice and well-balanced mix of tomato, lime, chili pepper, and salt in this, and it pairs quite well with lager. You really can taste all the disparate elements, which is quite a surprise. It’s clearly a way to make a poor man’s michelada, you bet, but there’s nothing wrong with slumming it once in a while. A-

Twang Lemon-Lime Beer Salt – Leans heavily on the lime, but lemon gives it a stronger kick on the back end. I was less thrilled with it as a pairing companion for any beer, but perhaps experimenting with different beer styles would find a more natural mate. B-

Twang Lime Beer Salt – As the above, without the lemon kick on the back end. I really enjoy a lime in my Pacifico, but this just didn’t replicate the experience for me. Too salty perhaps? B-

Twang Orange Beer Salt – Extremely orange heavy — only a salty kick late in the game distracts from the idea of Pixy Stix — presumably designed for use with wheat beers. It’s not really to my taste, but again, this could be a question of finding the right beer to pair it with. Either way, it’s less versatile than I’d like. C+

Twang Hot Lime Beer Salt – Less fiery than I was expecting (and hoping for), but the addition of spice gives the lime flavor more versatility and intrigue. A reasonable pairing with lagers, but still quite tart and lingering beyond its welcome. B

Twang Clamato Chili-Lime Salt – Again, this is a slightly different product intended for more than just beer, but as with the Michelada salt above, it fights above the expected weight. The two products are actually quite similar, though this one has less salt, larger granules, and just a hint of that briny shellfish character. Definitely a keeper for bloodies, (real) micheladas, and other exotic drinks. B+

$2 per 1.4 oz bottle (Clamato version is 1 oz) / beersalt.com

The Spice Lab Brings Color to Cocktail Rims

Cocktail-SaltsSalt-rimmed margaritas (or salt-rimmed anything, really) may be currently out of favor, but here’s one idea if you want to bring the trend back at your home bar: Use colored salts instead of boring old white ones.

The Spice Lab, which markets over 180 types of sea salt alone, has recently launched three sea salts designed specifically for margies. Available in blue, yellow, orange, or magenta, these brightly colored salts have no added flavor (hence no review, it’s just straight salt), but are artificially and naturally colored to put some pigment on the rim. (Warn guests in advance that it isn’t sugar!)

$3 gets you a 4 oz. bag (which is plenty of salt for even a large party of margarita guzzling).

thespicelab.com

Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail Rimmers

Herb Crystals CilantroFresh Origins, the maker of a unique set of herb-flavored cocktail rimmer crystals, is back at it, with two new “MicroGreens” flavors that are on the rise in the cocktailverse: Hibiscus and Cilantro. As with its original four flavors, these are natural flowers and herbs mixed with cane sugar crystals, creating crunchy, edible garnishes for your cocktail glass rims. We put these two new versions to the tongue to see how they measure up as ingredients of your next cocktail creation.

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Hibiscus Crystals – Quite sweet, with the hibiscus notes understated. The flavor comes across as more of a cherry/strawberry mix than a floral one, though hibiscus is always a tricky flavor to work with. This would be exemplary on a Cosmo or other fruit-focused cocktail. A-

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Cilantro Crystals – Appropriately bittersweet, but the addition of sugar makes cilantro tough to pick out. The attack is more akin to celery or perhaps even artichoke, but even that is quite muted compared to the sugar component. The company suggests pairing this with a margarita, but rimming a shot of Cynar with it is also interesting. B+

each $10 per 4 oz. jar / freshorigins.com

Review: Crazy Steve’s Bloody Mary Mixes

ghostshipCrazy Steve is making Bloody Mary mixes, dry spices, salsas, and pickles in the heart of New Jersey. (He’s also trying to help out the damaged Jersey Shore, so give him a hand.)

Our focus today however is on his two Bloody mixes (made with fresh cucumber, celery, onion, and jalapeno) and their rimmer companion. Thoughts follow.

Crazy Steve’s Badass Barnacle Bloody Mary Mix – Thick, with enticingly meaty overtones. Almost a gazpacho in a glass, it offers notes of garlic, onion, bouillon, and a bit of mixed garden vegetables. Moderate heat — it burns the lips but not the belly. All in all, there’s a great balance of flavors here, all coming together in a viscous yet easily drinkable package. Good on its own or spiked with vodka. A / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s GhostShip Bloody Mary Mix – Spiked with ghost peppers, aka “the hottest pepper in the world,” hence the name. Smells great. Peppery, like black pepper, atop the garlicky tomato notes. The body at first comes off much like the Badass Barnacle, but the heat builds quickly and steadily as it settles into your gullet. GhostShip quickly rises to the level where it seems like you’re going to break into a sweat, and your tongue is starting to prickle with an uncomfortable level of heat… and then it breaks. A seasoned (ha!) heat-seeker can handle GhostShip without a beer or milk chaser, but it’s more comfortable with a little something on the side. A- / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s Shot Over the Rim Spicy Bloody Mary Salt – Made with salt, red wine vinegar powder, chili powder, jalepeno powder, onion powder, cider vinegar powder, cumin, garlic powder, and some other stuff. I really like it. Most Bloody Mary rim salt is too heavy on chili powder, too light on salt. Crazy Steve has the balance right — plenty of salt (though not too much), with a kind of smoky, chipotle kick behind it. Good heat, but not overdone. Who knew that vinegar powder would be a killer secret ingredient? A keeper. A / $6 per 6 oz. container [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

crazystevespickles.com

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