Hot Cocktails For Cold Nights

Turn up the heat on boozy winter beverages

Alcohol can take the chill off in winter, but heating up that booze works even better. Fortified with brown spirits and spiced with seasonal flavors like cinnamon, cloves, allspice and anise, warm drinks are the comfort food of cocktails.

Cold weather mainstays like mulled wines, punches and ciders simmered in aromatics and cocktails like hot toddies, hot buttered rum and Irish coffee are getting revamped on modern cocktail menus. The latest winter warmers mix hits of seasonal infusions, housemade liqueurs, shrubs and fruit syrups, and a host of craft ingredients, including spirits and coffee.

Most mixologists are tapping techniques coming out of the kitchen to elevate bar menus. At Eastern Standard in Boston, Bar Manager Naomi Levy says the restaurant’s farm-to-table focus gravitates to the bar. “We use ingredients at their peak and preserve them for future use,” she says.

"There's nothing better than huddling around a hot drink on a cold day."

-Bar Manager Naomi Levy at Eastern Standard

Cranberry syrup and apple-infused tequila are made in the fall to spike warm beverages throughout the winter. 

“We use a peach infusion that’s paired with bourbon, rosemary and baking spices for a lovely winter flavor profile,” she says. “We end up with a plethora of ingredients to use all winter long, and that keeps the cocktail menu interesting.” 

Keeping a few quality ingredients handy can add major depth to flavor profiles. Louisville, Kentucky, restaurant Decca uses rum, steamed coconut milk, housemade chai simple syrup and star anise to booze up the Ziggy Stardust chai latte. San Francisco’s Presidio Social Club reaches for premium Guittard Coucher du Soleil chocolate and BrancaMenta mint liqueur for its boozy Hot Mint Chocolate. 

You can’t kill a classic, but there’s no harm in tweaking it a little. Head Bartender Griffin Elliott at Sepia in Chicago amps up a hot toddy with cognac instead of bourbon, sweetening with a housemade spiced honey syrup and garnishing with blood orange. 

At FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in Minneapolis, the hot buttered rum hits close to home with housemade fig syrup, locally made maple syrup, maple butter and spirits from a local distillery. “We want to highlight the homemade flavor in everything we do,” says Kristin Holt, general manager. “Our other culinary side is our bar.”

No matter which warm drink lands on the menu, keep ideas and ingredients ready for the moment the season changes. “On the first cold day in October, people come in and ask for hot buttered rum,” says Levy. “There’s nothing better than huddling around a hot drink on a cold day.”

Monica Ginsburg is a fan of hot toddies and spiked coffees, but not Chicago winters.

Cozy Up To Warm Cocktails 

6 tips for keeping it hot

  1. Bulk up. At Punch House in Chicago, partner Will Duncan says they batch 100 portions of punch to be ladled out over two or three days. “It tends to taste better and become a little more complex on the second day,” he says. 
  2. Control temperature. Use a large vessel with precise temperature control to hold hot liquids. Maintain temperature at 175 F, so it’s warm but won’t dissipate. Warm mugs or glasses with hot water before filling, especially if drinks are being transported to a table. 
  3. Watch your steep. When working in batches, Duncan recommends steeping spices in a satchel wrapped in cheesecloth. He starts tasting after 30 minutes and says most punches are ready in under an hour. Once you get the flavor you want, pull the teabag. 
  4. Match flavor profiles. Find the right balance between ingredients. Sepia’s Griffin Elliott combines two different rums to round out warm beverages: one with a rich, molasses flavor and another with notes of caramel and butterscotch. Coffee also is no longer one-type-fits-all, with flavor profiles that can wildly affect a drink recipe.
  5. Presentation counts. French presses, fondue pots or interesting coffee urns keep drinks warm and visually appealing for groups. For single servings, use a clear glass to show off layered ingredients.