Few things can warm the body and soul in the dead of winter quite like a steaming beverage, all the better if it’s made with brandy ... or bourbon or rye.
Scotch or rum will do just fine, as well. And with the rise of haute-cocktail culture, wintertime drinkers are ensured a bevy of non-alcoholic ingredients that accommodate the more potent components of a hot cocktail in the most sizzling way.
Cinnamon and cloves, apples and pears, bitters and sugars, chocolate and cream — these are the great supporting actors in the classic winter cocktail.
Of course, the perfect winter cocktail requires not only the ideal ingredients, but the ideal setting, as well. How much better does a mulled wine taste when sipped next to a crackling fire? How much better is that hot toddy after an exhilarating day on the slopes? We all know the answer.
In fact, ski resorts are largely responsible for the enduring popularity of hot cocktails. The world over, merry-makers earn their poison all day on the slopes. The reward is often just a few ski-boot-burdened steps from the trail’s edge.
At the sumptuous Troll Hallen Lodge in Park City, Utah, for example, vacationers can sip on a Kahlua cappuccino that augments the otherworldly surroundings — this is après-skiing for grownups at its best.
On the rowdier side of things, in Saas Fee, Switzerland, revelers warm up on gluhwein (mulled wine) and schnapps — “The most memorable hot cocktail I've ever had,” says Sean Newsom, the founding editor of Welove2ski.com.
No matter the activity, the Scandinavian countries understand the importance of keeping cozy. Their version of mulled wine, called glögg (made with red wine, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and other spices), heats up the short winter days, especially in Sweden during the Christmas season, when the country hosts a slew of markets, all invariably serving glögg alongside the holiday cheer.
Then there are cities like New York, London and Berlin, where the dreary, frosty winter months tend to send sophisticated residents straight for the nearest cozy watering hole.
And with the ascendancy in recent years of the urban cocktail bar as libation temple, wintry-weather cocktails have come in from the cold. “For the past several years, cocktail bars have been doing seasonal menus,” says Brian Miller, a bartender at New York City’s esteemed Death and Company.
As a result, bartenders (or “mixologists,” as some prefer to be called) have been inspired to perfect and sometimes completely reinvent the existing recipes for cold weather concoctions. “It pushes bartenders to remain creative,” he says. This year, Miller came up with the Sleepy Hollow Fizz, a frothy, rum-based drink whose dominant flavor is pumpkin. In addition to the pumpkin, “the spices that come from rum are pretty reminiscent of colder weather,” says Miller. It’s a drink seemingly without precedent, but it’s an instant classic.
Across town at Pegu Club, cocktail goddess Audrey Saunders has given the Tom and Jerry, a variation on eggnog that fell into obscurity sometime in the first half of the 20th century, a rebirth. As with most recipes, there is debate over the origins of the Tom and Jerry, but the majority has that it originated as a marketing gimmick to promote the 1821 book, “Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom.”
Saunders, though, has made the Tom and Jerry an end unto itself. “The people that want them, it’s like a drug to them,” says Miller. “More and more bars are going to start making them.”
This is not to forget that most famous of winter cocktails, the hot toddy. Ironically, the hot toddy is done best far away from where it was done first. In Scotland, the hot toddy’s reputed birthplace, the drink remains a remedy illness, drunk primarily in the home. But in urbane locations like Berlin’s CSA bar, the libation is given the spotlight it justly deserves.
Similarly, although the Irish Coffee was obviously born in Ireland — legend has that it was invented in County Limerick in the 1940s to warm a group of traveling Americans — it came into its own where it is most famously served today, at San Francisco’s Buena Vista café.
At the end of the day, what may be the best of all the wintertime cocktails is not technically a cocktail. A good brandy can return color to the cheeks and feeling to the frozen toes like no other. “I don’t think (customers) order cognac nearly enough,” says Miller. A great cognac can make any room cozier. Although, it’s best sipped in an environment that evokes old world charm. No place does this better than Le Bar in the George V Hotel in Paris. “Cognac has that romance of a snifter (by the) fireside,” Miller adds. All the better if you find yourself sitting by Le Bar’s actual fireside.