The sensory pleasure of warm drinks in the cold weather months goes beyond the obvious internal benefits. Warm liquid concoctions create an aura of amiable people huddling close together in front of a soothing fire. Steaming cups of nogs, grogs, toddies, flips, punches, slings or mulled drinks connote companionship, even reverie, during the period of the year when darkness and chilly weather reign in the Northern Hemisphere.
But, warm libations are hardly a discovery of the late 20th century. The vast majority of America’s first immigrants hailed either from the northern nations of Continental Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, France, Netherlands) or the British Isles (Ireland, Scotland, England). In these cool regions, warm drinks were commonplace to combat dank climates and cold domiciles, and the immigrants brought with them the custom of having heated, congenial meeting places. A roaring, centrally-located fireplace formed the core of any colonial tavern, offering considerably more than warmth and light. These public houses were places for the populace to gather and chat and play games such as cards, bowling, darts or billiards. Local news, business transactions and plain old general gossip were traded freely and frequently over steaming tankards of mulled wine, “flips,” warmed ales or fortified wines, ciders mixed with herbs, molasses, or honey, or punches based in rum, the predominant distilled spirit of colonial America.
Prior to the eventual move by early mixologists to ice-filled cocktails in the mid-19th century, warm drinks were the rule, not the exception, in the taverns and inns that serviced the eastern seaboard colonies. The drinks themselves were often peculiar, if not downright dubious. These mixtures were heated to a froth with red-hot irons with bulbous ends (known as flip irons, hottles or loggerheads) that were routinely kept in the perpetually blazing fireplaces of the colonies’ eating and drinking establishments. In fact, the now familiar expression of “coming to loggerheads,” which implies a state of argumentative disagreement, was born in America’s colonial taverns because the irons could likewise be wielded as a blunt instrument of persuasion in a dispute between multiple parties.
Fortunately, the enjoyment of warm drinks on the threshold of the millennium doesn’t include the threat of literally being at loggerheads.
Contemporary Warm Drinks
Contemporary warm drinks have long been associated with the winter skiing culture. “Aprés-ski” is the enjoyment of warm libations after a day schussing down the powdery slopes of Vail or Killington and has become every bit as vital — and emblematic — of the recreational experience as the skiing itself. Any travel brochure that touts the glories of snow skiing invariably shows a picture of relaxed skiers lounging around a fireplace sipping steaming mugs.
But warm drinks that combat the chill and wet of the winter months and enhance indoor activities reach far past the ski lodge society. The beverage alcohol foundations of warm drinks fall into five basic categories: brandy, rum, whiskey, wines and liqueurs, plus intriguing combinations of the five.
Brandy has been viewed as a restorative against the rigors of inclement weather or dank conditions for centuries. The heroic image of a St. Bernard with a mini-barrel of brandy strapped around its neck trudging through the snowy Alps to rescue a person in distress is actually, to the surprise of many people, fact rather than fiction. But high-quality brandy, including V.S.-level cognac and armagnac, is frequently seen as a key ingredient in classic warm drinks. These include the Tom and Jerry, a seductive mix of brandy (premium rum or bourbon or a combination with brandy may also be used), allspice, milk, egg and sugar; the Mulled Claret (made with brandy, red wine, ruby port, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, lemon peel), the Hot Brandy Flip (brandy, whole egg, nutmeg, sugar), or the Wassail Punch (a traditional group dynamic concoction featuring cognac (or premium rum) that is vigorously spiced and fruited), which encourages hours of heartfelt singing round the piano each Christmas season.
Brandy likewise makes appearances in more than a few superb, palm-warming coffee drinks. A genuine classic is the Café Brulot, in which cognac is united with cinnamon sticks, sugar cubes, cloves, black coffee, and the zest of orange and lemon. Another tried-and-true, if less illustrious, legend is the Café Diablo, which resembles the Café Brulot except that Cointreau and heated curaçao are added.
Rum has been considered a prominent element in warm drinks since the days when Britain’s Royal Navy ruled the seas and Americans were British subjects. Whereas most modern-day cold cocktails call for white rum, the majority of warm drinks created in the 18th and 19th centuries show a clear preference for gold or dark rums due to the fact that their flavor profiles are fuller and more complex than the whites. Perhaps the quintessential rum-based warm drink is Hot Buttered Rum. This drink’s better recipes call for good quality dark rum from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Barbados or Haiti. Two to three ounces of dark rum, such as Appleton or Bacardi Gold Reserve, get blended with brown sugar (or maple syrup for a tantalizing variation), a pat of butter, nutmeg, cloves, lemon peel, boiling water and a cinnamon stick.
Another dandy of a cold weather rum-based drink is the Hot Spiced Cider, comprised of apple cider, sugar, cloves, allspice berries, salt, and spiced rum, garnished with a cinnamon stick. A delicious variation, called Mulled Cider, introduces a twist of lemon and a dash of Angostura bitters. Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum is an inspired choice both for the Hot Spiced Cider and Mulled Cider. A potent variation of regular hot chocolate is the Chocolate Sin, a savory combination of dark rum, bourbon, premium hot chocolate mix and dark crème de cacao, all topped off with whipped cream and a dash of ground cinnamon. Employ a supple dark rum such as Appleton Dark from Jamaica.
Whiskey forms the foundation for three of the all-time great warm drinks, the legendary fix-er-upper, the Hot Toddy, Irish Coffee and the notorious Blue Blazer, a grand flame of a drink reportedly invented by the mid-19th century Michelangelo of bartending, Jerry Thomas.
Adult wintertime afflictions, such as common colds or influenza, are often laughingly derided as mere excuses to imbibe Hot Toddies. Though some Hot Toddy recipes call for dark rum, the classic formula should have either bourbon or rye as the base spirit. Wild Turkey Rye or Jim Beam bourbon will do fine for the Hot Brick Toddy, which also has sugar syrup, a pat of butter, boiling water and powdered cinnamon in it. No drink helps us to relax and rest in the grip of a cold like the Hot Brick Toddy.
The story behind the Blue Blazer: when trailblazing bartender Jerry Thomas was tending bar at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York in the 1850s, he served this hot concoction only when the thermometer dropped significantly below freezing. The ingredients seem straightforward enough, equal amounts of whiskey (Scotch is definitely preferred) and boiling water plus a sugar cube. Simple… until you follow Thomas’s instructions. The recipe calls for the ignition of the Scotch in one container and the boiling water and sugar to be in a separate container. The extinguishing of the Scotch comes with the pouring of one container into the other until the flames go out. Why the name? When the Scotch is ignited, the flame is a dazzling, blazing blue.
To many discerning diners, after-dinner coffee during the cold months means one thing: Irish Coffee. The rudimentary recipe, developed after World War II by Irish bartender Joe Sheridan, calls for Irish whiskey, hot black coffee, brown sugar and a topper of freshly whipped cream. More inventive formulas include an additional dash of Baileys Original Irish Cream, Kahlúa, Tia Maria or Irish Mist Liqueur. Some bartenders toss in an orange peel. The most conscientious mixologists insist on a premium blended Irish whiskey, such as Tullamore Dew, Bushmills (or the superpremium Black Bush) or Jameson. The intensity of a finer whiskey plays a key role in the flavor of Irish Coffee.
Liqueurs Play A Part
Liqueurs are part of more classic warm drinks than just Irish Coffee. While many spirits purists wrinkle their noses at liqueurs, the reality is that bartenders view liqueurs as being indispensable components to a bevy of warm drinks. Customary headliners like Drambuie, Kahlúa, Baileys, Irish Mist, Chartreuse, di Saronno, Cointreau, Southern Comfort, Tia Maria, Galliano, Jägermeister, Frangelico, Romana and Grand Marnier are just the beginning of the list. Other important types of liqueurs for warm drinks include peach schnapps, applejack, crème de menthe, peppermint schnapps, crème de cacao, curaçao and sambuca.
Expanding on the hot coffee theme, add a half-ounce of amaretto (di Saronno or Lazzaroni are ideal) to espresso for an Italian twist, a Mexican coffee liqueur (Kahlúa or Kamora) for a south-of-the-border zest, a splash of herbal Benedictine or Chartreuse for a French twist, or Tia Maria for a cracking Caribbean surprise.
A Time For Wine
The final but by no means the least category in warm drink elements is wine. The classifications of wine that most easily fold into a warm drink recipe are fortified wines (meaning still wines that have had brandy added to them such as port, sherry and madeira) and dry red table wines. A stunningly refreshing warm-up concoction is the Miss Sues Winter Warmer, which combines warmed ruby port, a splash of Cointreau, hot water, and whole cloves, garnished with a paper-thin slice of orange.
Mulled wines have existed for centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. Mentioned earlier, the Mulled Claret is a particularly gratifying warm libation for wine lovers since the recipe includes both ruby port and a good, solid red wine such as a lesser bordeaux, Australian shiraz or California merlot. The Locomotive, made of dry red wine, curaçao, an egg, honey, lemon slice and a cinnamon stick, is warmed in a sauce and served in a warmed mug. Most warm wine drinks are lower in alcohol than those employing spirits as the foundation, so those people wanting to lighten up in their drinking should be steered to these satisfying drinks.
The chosen wines should be of mid-range quality. No need to put the cherished 1961 Lafite into your Mulled Claret when an astounding array of affordable and perfectly adequate wines are available.
In the midst of the contemporary cocktail fever, warm drinks have been given short shrift. Yet, for many people who enjoy the cold months playing indoor games in front of a roaring fireplace with friends and family or who intrepidly attack the ski slopes or ice rinks, there’s nothing that refreshes and revitalizes like a warm drink made with beverage alcohol. The beverage alcohol merchants who take the time to train their staffs in the basics of warm drinks will see their cold month sales increase.
COMING TO TERMS, THEN & NOW
FLIP:So-named due to the fact that these concoctions were heated by a red-hot iron known as either a “flip iron” or “flip dog.” In years gone by, these drinks usually included a base of crude rum, ale, cream/milk, spices/herbs and beaten eggs. The various flips, such as the Bourbon Flip or Boston Flip, of today are served cold and are considered short drinks.
MULL:The verb means “to heat, sweeten, and flavor” a libation, such as cider, wine or beer. The adjective, mulled, describes the so-affected libation: mulled wine, mulled cider, et cetera. Mulled wine includes taking a red wine and adding citrus peel, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. This mixture is heated in a saucepan and served hot in a mug. Always served warm to hot.
NOG:Most often connected with “egg,” nog has meant “strong ale” in past centuries. Nowadays, it refers to the popular drink, made from egg yolks, brandy or dark rum, sugar, cream, and nutmeg, served around the Christmas/New Year holiday season. Most always served cold except when hot milk is used to make Hot Eggnog.
SLING: One of the first mixed drinks widely found in colonial taverns, the sling was a potent drink served in a mug. The ingredients were strong ale that was sweetened with sugar or molasses and had dried pumpkin or gourds added to it. Slings were then stirred with a loggerhead and brought to a froth. Contemporary slings, like the Singapore Sling and Gin Sling and their many variations, are exotic mixtures of fizzy water and fruit juices. These are now tall drinks served cold.
TODDY: Most frequently called “hot toddy.” This is a warm, relaxing drink consisting of brandy or whiskey, lemon juice, hot water and honey. Some recipes call for spices, especially cinnamon or cloves, or butter. The drink is wishfully perceived to be an antidote to the common cold or flu. Always served hot. — F.P.P.
F. Paul Pacult is co-host of “The Happy Hour,” a weekly radio program, wine columnist for Sky, Delta’s in-flight magazine, and the author of Kindred Spirits.