The Secret Ingredient: Piloncillo

Underutilized and overlooked cocktail ingredients get some love, starting with piloncillo.

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A glass containing pink liquid garnished with a lime slice in front of two planters.
The Otoño Fresca includes piloncillo, an ingredient more commonly used in the kitchen. / Courtesy Chris Meyer

We are always on the hunt for unique, underused, or overlooked cocktail ingredients to spark our creativity and enhance a drink’s flavor profile. Today, we feature piloncillo, an unprocessed form of cane sugar used in Mexican cooking. Its golden-brown color and complex, warm, almost smoky, almost molasses-y flavor already has quite a presence in the culinary world, and any bar folks who work in a kitchen with the sweetener should definitely consider cross-utilizing it, as Chris Meyer from the Regional in Fort Collins has in his Otoño Fresca. 

“We were using piloncillo in our curry-rubbed flank steak entrée,” says front of house manager and lead bartender Meyer, “and it seemed like the perfect time to incorporate it into our new margarita cocktail. It adds both texture and a boldness to the Otoño, and a familial [Mexican] ingredient.”

Piloncillo (which means little loaf) often comes in disc shape or a distinctive cone that cooks down easily, making it a versatile sweetener for many easy-to-make-at-home cocktails, like piloncillo old fashioneds or hot toddies—though you could also just head to the Regional and have a pro craft one of these for you. 

Otoño Fresca

  • 1 ½ ounces watermelon-chile simple syrup 
  • 1 ½ ounces El Charro Blanco Tequila 
  • ¾ ounce lime 
  • ½ ounce Pelotón de la Muerte Mezcal 

Build all ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and pour directly into a highball glass. Garnish with dehydrated lime slice topped with a pinch of Tajín seasoning. 

To make a batch of Otoño Fresca, combine:

  • 128 ounces watermelon-chile simple syrup
  • 128 ounces El Charro Blanco Tequila
  • 64 ounces lime
  • 42 ½ ounces Pelotón de la Muerte Mezcal 

Yields approximately 90 four-ounce drinks.

Watermelon-Chile Simple Syrup

  • 112 ounces water
  • 1 quart dried red chiles (mild)
  • 3 chiles de arbol (for heat)
  • 10 guajillo chiles
  • 2 piloncillo cones
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 watermelon, chopped (excluding rind)
  • 2 tablespoons achiote

Toast chiles and in large pot and stir continuously until nicely roasted. Add water, continue to stir for one or two minutes. Add watermelon, salt, and achiote. Boil for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Puree all ingredients in pot, then strain. Yields approximately four quarts (128 ounces) of simple syrup.

 Are you or someone you know using a unique ingredient in a cocktail? Send it our way at askus@diningout.com

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