My daughter Alice is away from Philly for her first summer, working as a camp counselor halfway across the country. And we miss her. So, naturally, I couldn't resist a cocktail called Alice Takes Flight. But when I took a sip of this intriguing orange brew at Vedge, I was startled (in a good way) by the warm glow of chile spice that surged forward to tingle my lips. I shouldn't have been surprised.
Chile pepper heat — once a novelty in cocktails (aside from the Bloody Mary) — has become one of the hottest trends in local bar craft, from the margarita variation of Smoke & Salt at the Goat's Beard in Wayne to the myriad chile-infused tequila and mezcal drinks at Tequila's. Or my favorite cocktail at Harper's Garden, the 18th Street Heat, whose refreshing Aperol-blushed lemonade leaves the warmth of Espolon tequila steeped with jalapeño. When done well, it's the lingering taste of the pepper's fruit, rather than simply its spice, that intrigues me most. And the chile's prickly character has the ability to add yet another color to the mixologist's palette of other more familiar sensations — sourness, bitterness, sweetness — that give a good cocktail angles, depth and nuance.
(Harper's Garden bar manager Jesse Cornell is married to Inquirer Lifestyle and Arts editor Molly Eichel, who didn't assign or edit this piece.)
At Hop Sing Laundromat, drink master Lê was one of the first to experiment locally with chile intrigue for his Montana Payback, muddling potent Thai bird peppers with strawberries, Laird's applejack and rum before topping it with a layer of heavy cream, a clever move to coat the tongue with a shield of richness and let the heat bloom at the back of the throat.
At Vedge, meanwhile, the notion of spice is downplayed completely on the drink's description, which just mentions "pepper." And it's certainly one of the most subtle chile cocktails I've sipped, a loose Wonderland-inspired variation on the Paper Airplane that replaces the usual bourbon with Peruvian pisco, a splash of Nonino amaro, Aperol and a tart rooibos tea syrup whose jalapeño infusion is both warm and fruity. It's also rounded with a soft vanilla kiss, which gives the drink a certain elegance. But my lips still hummed with the warmth of the chile, a little reminder, as I thought about my own girl working so far away, that sipping Alice Takes Flight wasn't just about seeking heat, but also a little bittersweet.
— Craig LaBan