Discoveries in Food and Wine

Habanero-Infused Basil Watermelon Smash


Habanero plant, probably in need of a trim

The picture above is the second crop from our habanero plant. I’ve done a fair amount of cooking with them, but I needed more to do, so cocktails seemed natural.  There’s probably also some habanero jelly in my future.  When I made the salsa, I roasted a few additional peppers and then infused them into some white rum.  A week later, the stuff was on fire.  I made one drink and realized that I had either let it sit too long with the peppers in the rum or used too many.  I went back to the drawing board, diluted the mixture a little bit, and then made a few more cocktails.  Here was my favorite result:


1 oz. habanero-infused rum

2 oz. white rum

2 fresh basil leaves

1 small wedge watermelon (about 2 oz)

½ teaspoon coarse sugar

Crushed ice

Splash of club soda


To make the rocks version, I muddled basil and watermelon piece (rind removed) in a mojito cup with just a few chips of crushed ice and the sugar.  The watermelon will provide a fair amount of juice, reducing the amount of soda water that you’ll need to fill the drink.  I then added more crushed ice, poured in all the rum, topped with a splash of soda water, and gave it a good stir with a cocktail spoon.  I finished it with a garnish of the little flowery top of the basil branch.

For the straight up version, I muddled all the same ingredients in a cocktail shaker, then added cubed ice instead of crushed.  After adding a splash of soda, I gave it a good shake (50 times is my general rule on getting the drink cold enough without watering it down) and strained it into a martini glass.  Although the picture below doesn’t show it, I garnished the rim with a thin wedge of watermelon. A tiny cube of it in the bottom and perhaps the same garnish as the rocks version, floated on the top, would have also been acceptable.

Obviously, a classic smash isn’t an up drink, but up is my preferred way to enjoy cocktails.  Ice simply waters them down, so even something as simple as vodka and cranberry gets the straight up treatment.

The drink is a study in delicious contrasts.  The heat of the habanero set off the sweetness of the watermelon perfectly, while the aromatics of the basil—with a distinct cinnamon note to it—tempered the heat.  All in all, I was extremely happy with it.  You have to have a little heat tolerance, but habanero is really all about flavor, not burn.  The fruitiness of it makes a fine complement to the watermelon.

I tried the same basic cocktail, substituting grilled pineapple and mint.  It didn’t turn out as well as the basil-watermelon version.  It might have simply been a case that the particular watermelon I had was better than the particular pineapple, but even nicely grilled and caramelized, the pineapple lacked the natural sweetness and expression of flavor that the watermelon had.  If I were to “fix” that version, I’d add some simple syrup in order to sweeten it up.

The watermelon version is a drink I’ll continue to make (meaning I’ll need a produce some more infused rum).  Now we’ll just need to figure out a food dish to go with it.

Up and rocks versions