Living in New England, no stranger to the biting cold, you would think that heated alcoholic drinks would be an easy sell, but that's not always the case. Considering how many of us you see trudging through the snow with a large iced Dunkin's frozen into our fists, perhaps that's not so surprising after all. I happen to share the aversion, which is why I've gone looking for warm cocktails to break the ice, so to speak.
"I personally think they're just overlooked," says Julie Gibbons of the newly opened 75 on Liberty Wharf. "I don't think a lot of places have menus for them or don't market them well." Or perhaps they just don't have the right setting for them. At her bar, the fire-pit cocktail menu actually lives up to its name. "You'll see people out there with a hot coffee drink or a warm apple cider enjoying the fire and hanging out. It just goes along with the atmosphere to have a nice, warm, toasty drink."
They're trying to look beyond the standard Irish-coffee model with their mulled wine and pear brandy. They begin with a riesling, which they heat, combine with fresh ginger, cloves, and cardamom, and then top with a Pierre Ferrand cognac. "It gives it a cider taste, but it still has a wine feeling," she says. Plus, the riesling harkens to the days when they served mulled wine on the cold city streets of Germany.
Gary Hermanson of City Landing is drawing from another European tradition, this one from his Swedish family, with his version of glögg. He steeps a spice bag of cardamom, raisins, orange peel, cloves, sliced almonds, and cinnamon in boiling water for 30 minutes, adding sugar to taste. Next he adds fino sherry and ruby port, along with either akvavit, grain alcohol, or an 80-proof vodka, as in the version available at the restaurant. Then he heats it again, bottles it, and lets it sit for a few days — or a few years. As long as you don't over-spice it with cinnamon, he says, you can let it rest and "it just gets better and better."
For people who've embraced the hot toddy or the spiced cider, this is the next logical option, Hermanson says. "Whether it's a foodie, or a craft-cocktailer, or someone looking for something outside of the norm, it's very seasonally appropriate and very holiday-driven. People always say it smells and tastes like Christmas."
If either of those options sounds a little heavy, body- or spice-wise, Rob Haberek is doing a drink at Sel de la Terre that combines vanilla- and brown-sugar-infused bourbon, hot water, and an orange wheel. "This is a more interesting take on a traditional hot toddy, with brown sugar instead of honey acting as the sweetener and an immediate vanilla presence on the nose," he explains.
Seems simple, but balancing a hot drink isn't as easy as it sounds, says Chad Arnholt of Citizen Public House, who throws an outdoor drinking party by his own fire pit on every first snow. "Hot drinks seem like a no-brainer, but if you don't prep your glass right, the glass will cool down the drink, or the cream will cool it down. You go from 140-degree coffee to something 80, 90 degrees and tepid." Instead, he'll steep an apple in hot water and honey and add it to mezcal, making a drink that's perfect for "sitting in front of the fire with two feet of snow." Mezcal and fire — now that sounds worth getting heated up for.