Every October I make Concord grape juice and then seal it away in jars. I hoard these sweet vessels until the following summer, when I mix a chilled beverage called spicy grape juice.
I don’t remember my first taste of chocolate, or of bacon, or even mayonnaise, but I’ll never forget my first sip of spicy grape juice. I was an 8-year-old city boy, visiting friends deep in the Massachusetts countryside. One hot day our pack of kids came into the house thirsty. Joan, their mom, emptied jars of grape juice and bubbly into a pitcher of ice, and poured the mixture into glasses on the big dark dining room table. It hit the spot like a jump in the lake.
Carbonated water—aka seltzer or bubbly—contains carbonic acid, which triggers receptors on the taste buds that detect mustard and horseradish. This produces the distinct spicy taste of bubbly. For some reason, a little pain in the water makes it more drinkable (for some people anyway). The action is similar to how a dash of spicy hot sauce can make a taco more delicious. LaCroix, the beverage company, has leveraged the resulting endorphin rush into drinks that feel like soda pop, even when completely unsweetened.
It was unusual to consume something so completely satisfying out of Joan’s kitchen. Her style of cooking was my first exposure to the unprocessed, “natural,” far-left wing of food. Of whole grains, carob, nuts and beans. Her arch-enemy was sugar.
I wondered if this diet had something to do with the fact that Joan’s kids were as tough as superheroes. They would jump off the roof for fun, and cover long distances through the woods (sometimes popping out near a gas station that sold candy).
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Joan’s simple drink harnessed multiple forces into that unusually satisfying drink. It contained plenty of those elusive sugar molecules, thanks to that sweet grape juice. Thanks to the carbonic acid, bubbly has a sour taste and that harmonizes with the sour component of the grape’s flavor. In that hot, dehydrated moment around the dark wooden table, the cold combination of spicy, sour and sweet flavors was like being plugged into an electrical socket of thirst-quenching power.
Years later I found myself with a Concord grape plant of my own, and, as luck had it, a home seltzer maker. Suddenly, I had all the spicy grape juice I cared to drink, which is a uniquely satisfying feeling. Nowadays, I use Joan’s mix as a base for exploring more complex combinations of sweet, sour and pain.
My current spicy grape juice recipe includes both lemon and grapefruit juices as well, which add extra shades of tartness to complement the grape juice and carbonic acid. Grapefruit is also bitter, a flavor that, like sour and like bubbles, softens with a little sweetness. I like to add spearmint, which has a sweet flavor and I add rose petals, when available, preferably yellow, which goes best with purple. The petals float there and smell beautiful while you drink, a reminder to smell those roses while you can, because summer won’t wait. And this is one of the best ways to enjoy it. Whether you take your spicy grape juice mixed, spiked or straight, the sweet bubbles and acids will help you squeeze every drop of summer onto the melting ice cubes of life.
Bubbles and Roses
Rose petals are not essential to the architecture of this drink, so don’t sweat it if you can’t find any. But if you know a rose bush that has not been sprayed, then by all means pick a few—with permission, if necessary. Rinse off any bugs or dust that might be on the petals, and prepare to add them to the drink. Just make sure to use a straw so you don’t get petals in your mouth.
If you can’t get spearmint, find the sweetest mint you can. If you wish to add booze, I suggest limoncello or something like it, such as the Licor de Limon I brought home from Spain.
2 lemons, 1 juiced and one sliced
1 grapefruit, half juiced and the other half sliced
6 sprigs spearmint
Petals of a rose, preferably yellow (optional)
1 quart grape juice
1 quart seltzer
Divide the lemon juice and grapefruit juice among six glasses. Add a sprig of mint to each glass. Layer in the ice cubes with rose petals and thin slices of fruit in each glass, and then add the grape juice. Finally, add the bubbly to each glass, slowly, so it stays on top and doesn’t mix until you want it to. Serve during a hot summer afternoon.