The holidays are behind us, the novelty of the new year has worn off, but we in the Midwest are still left with the season’s cold weather. If this year is anything like the last, we might even get another visit from the polar vortex, which is way less exciting than its name implies.
Rather than let our spirits plummet along with the temperatures, the season is a perfect time to invite friends and family over for a few hot cocktails. A lot of these are aromatic, and their recipes are often flexible enough to allow us to riff on the traditional version of the cocktails. As with last month’s look at New Year’s Eve drinks, the goal is to provide you with templates, using specific recipes as examples.
Put on a kettle of water, and let’s warm up with some tasty libations.
Hot & Spiked
We start with the simplest category, the spiked hot drinks. Hot cocoa with a shot of vanilla-infused vodka. Coffee fortified with liqueur or whiskey. It’s a very basic formula of hot beverage + shot of booze. The trick to making a good cocktail in this situation is to pay attention to your few ingredients and how they mesh.
Take hot chocolate, for example. I know that a drink can get too rich for my taste buds, so I mix accordingly. If my cocoa is made with a water base, I’m more likely to use a creamy liqueur (Kahlua or RumChata, for example) or a vanilla-infused vodka. If the cocoa is milk-based, then rum or brandy are my go-to spirits. If I have a Mexican hot chocolate with some spice and heat, then I’m definitely breaking out the smoky mezcal.
Same goes for coffee. In the picture for the cocktail below, the coffee I had on hand was a medium roast, and the notes seemed like they’d go best with a Spanish brandy (which has an almost raisin-y quality) and regular sugar. But my favorite version of this recipe uses darker flavors.
- 1 oz — brandy (I’m a sucker for armagnac)
- 1 tsp — brown sugar
- ~4 oz — freshly-brewed coffee (Italian roast)
- whipped cream
In a coffee cup, place the brown sugar, and then add the brandy. Fill with coffee, and stir until sugar is dissolved. top with whipped cream.
This version of the standard recipe has a lot of dark sugar and “burnt” flavors, which I’m a fan of. I’ll also usually add a few drops of chocolate or coffee bitters to the coffee as it’s steeping in a French press. The whipped cream adds some body to the drink as it slowly melts and gets stirred in. It takes some patience to make, but is worth it once you start sipping.
A Toddy for What Ails You
The hot toddy is a beautiful template for cold weather, and cold & flu season. I don’t know how much belief one should ascribe to its folkloric ability to help what ails you, but I’m also happy being ignorant in this regard. It tastes good and soothes me when I’m sick, so I’m okay if it’s only a placebo effect.
A basic hot toddy is also a relatively simple drink to achieve. I find that it’s a great way to end the night at formal events like wedding receptions. The standard recipe calls for an aged spirit, a little sweetener (usually honey), a little citrus (usually lemon), and mixed with hot water or tea. If you want a perfect nightcap at a reception, ask the bartender for a shot of whisky or brandy, and then head over to the table that has the coffee, hot water, and tea. A good caterer should have everything you need to build the drink.
Much like an old fashioned, the hot toddy is an amazingly flexible recipe. You can adjust the ratios to better fit your taste, and its ubiquitous enough to make wildly different variations, like the two drinks below.
- 1½ oz — scotch (Black Grouse or Laphroaig)
- 1 tsp — real maple syrup
- ~4 oz — lapsang souchong tea
- lemon wheel
Add the maple syrup and scotch whisky to a small mug. Pour in tea to taste, stir, and garnish with a lemon wheel.
I’ll admit that the above drink is not going to be to everybody’s taste. Smoky scotch, smoky black tea, and the dark sweetness of maple syrup are a heavy combination of flavors. That said, if you’re celebrating or relaxing with cigars (or just like smoky flavors), this toddy is here for you.
- 1½ oz — aquavit
- ½ oz — simple syrup
- 4 oz — apple cassis tea
- lime wedge
Add the simple syrup and aquavit to a small mug. Pour in tea, squeeze lime wedge into the drink, stir, and drop spent wedge into the mug.
This is a drink that I came up with for the tasting room at North Shore Distillery (full disclosure: I still work there). It’s an example of how you can combine local options in your cocktails. The apple cassis tea is from the Chicago- and Austria-based Julius Meinl cafes, and the aquavit is an herbal spirit from North Shore (whose name tells you where in the Chicagoland area they’re located). Both apple and cassis (i.e., blackcurrant) flavors mesh well with the spices in aquavit, and the fact that it’s a tisane instead of a tea means that you can have it at night without worrying about caffeine.
With a Little More Preparation
Here are the big guns. These are the hot drinks that are going to take more than a little preparation before they’re ready to serve. These are your mulled wines and glöggs, your hot buttered rums and your Tom & Jerry drinks. You’re not going to be able to mix these on the fly, or without creating certain elements beforehand.
That said, these are some of my favorite cocktails. For this piece, I’m bringing back a simpler recipe from my World Cup cocktail series last summer. It’s become an absolute favorite of mine, and it’s not very well known in North America. It’s also a bastardized version of a traditional drink from the northern Andes mountains, so if you can find the ingredients for a more traditional version, I recommend these recipes.
- 8 oz — water
- 2 tbsp — sugar (or grated panela)
- ¼ oz — fresh lemon juice
- a couple cinnamon sticks
- a few cloves
- 1 to 2 oz — Zhumir aguardiente
Combine everything but the aguardiente in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and let simmer for at least 15 minutes. This “cinnamon water” can be stored & reheated for future use, or used straight from the pan. Pour the cinnamon water into a mug, and add aguardiente to taste. Garnish with a cinnamon stick or lemon wheel.
Aquardiente is a South American spirit that’s similar to rum (though some type are spiced with anise). If you can’t find any where you are, cachaça or rum are decent substitutes. This is also meant to be made in batches, so the recipe above can be scaled up to make enough for a group of folks seeking solace from the cold.
This was a recipe that surprised me when I first tested my variations. I’ve actually discovered that I enjoy it more than a toddy, which is something I didn’t think possible. It’s a very comforting, warm beverage that originated in South American mountains, but makes a perfect drink for combating the polar vortex on the Great Lakes.