Winter warmup

Techniques for hot cocktails during chilly weather.
hot toddy glasses
Hot toddy. Courtesy iStock

As the shadows grow longer and the frost falls earlier and earlier in the evenings, there are few better ways to warm your insides than with a hot mug of something well-spiked.

As your cocktail prowess increases, here are some tips to improve your warm drinks to the same caliber as your cold ones — and increase your creativity toward seasonal specialties!

As far as techniques and pointers, there are really only two critical concepts to keep in mind when you turn up the temperature, specifically regarding alcohol. The trick with using alcohol in a hot drink is to recognize the simple physics of evaporation: turn up the temperature, and the alcohol evaporates faster.

It’s a misunderstanding that you’re losing alcohol content with the increase in temperature — even igniting the booze only reduces the alcohol by 20%-30%. Time spent “hot” is a more critical component in that regard; if you leave a slow-cooker of mulled wine on for hours at a time, you’ll lose almost all of it to evaporation. So, if you want a hot drink with the expected amount of booze, it’s best to combine room-temperature spirits with a hot mixer (i.e. coffee/tea/etc.), as opposed to pre-batching.

Also keep in mind regarding alcohol that since it evaporates more aggressively, it will assail your drinkers’ senses more intensely. Sipping bourbon neat at room temperature can be perfectly lovely but sipping bourbon at hot-tea temperature will punch a hole in your sinuses; the alcohol practically catapults out of liquid suspension, and you may as well be drinking lighter fluid, for that’s all you’ll taste.

With that in mind, the inspiration then comes down to taking a classic hot drink and building the flavors off that. Start with coffee, tea, chocolate, even warm milk and emphasize spirits with body and richness, as heat tends to make the texture of a drink seem lighter.

Using richer spirits with barrel-aged, tannin and sugars present will give a warm drink a bit more depth. Sweeten with liqueurs and other syrups to taste but remain conscious of any increase of the alcohol content, as the heat will always make a drink seem stronger.

Finally, hot drinks are always best served in small glasses with regular refills. If you balance a perfect cocktail to serve hot, you’ll often find it askew and unbalanced once it cools off, so serve small enough portions so you can always guarantee the right temp.

— Torrence R. O’Haire, of The Starving Artist, is a chef, entrepreneur and restaurant consultant specializing in wine, spirits and cocktails. He also founded the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild.

Here are a few recipes to get your wheels turning. Stoke the fire and stay cozy as the first snowflakes fall!

The Scottish Rose

Inspired by a historical cocktail known as Atholl Brose, this creamy oatmeal cookie of a drink is shockingly delicious.

3 ounces oat milk, heated

¾ ounce Drambuie

¼ ounce dark honey
(preferably buckwheat)

¼ ounce unsweetened whipped cream, plus more to top

Fresh nutmeg, to garnish

Combine all ingredients in a mug and top with whipped cream and nutmeg. The unsweetened whipped cream on top perfectly balances the sweet, creamy nectar below. Coziness defined.

Vlad’s Rum Tea

A Russian’s Russian hot tea guaranteed to keep you warm across the taiga.

Russian Caravan tea blend:

2 parts Assam tea

1 part English breakfast tea

1 part Lapsang souchong tea


3 ounces strongly infused Russian Caravan tea

½ ounce rich Demerara rum
(my favorite is El Dorado 12-year)

1 tablespoon blackcurrant jam

1 slice lemon

Sliced almonds, to garnish

In a small mixing glass, gently muddle the jam and lemon slice and top with rum and a splash of tea, stirring to dissolve. Strain into a teacup and top with the remaining
hot tea. Garnish with a few sliced almonds and wrap your fur a bit tighter around your shoulders.

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