Here's how to make the best winter cocktails, from mulled wine to hot toddies
When temperatures drop it's time to retire tall glasses of fruity iced cocktails and turn to drinks that are cozy and comforting. During the winter, bartender Megan Coyle enjoys "warm and warming cocktails" that are "rich and brimming with spices."
Sean Johnson, who works as an ambassador for Hennessy, embraces the holiday spirit for his cold-weather drinks. "When I brainstorm winter recipes, I immediately think of the classic festive meals people enjoy during this season," says Johnson, "from sweet elements, like maple and mocha, to citrus flavors, like apple and cranberry." Johnson says winter spices and flavors make for some of the best drinks of the year.
What is a winter cocktail?
If you're looking for a cocktail to warm you up on cold winter nights, there are three types of drinks that will help you stay toasty while getting tipsy: hot drinks, warming drinks and drinks that use seasonal flavors. Javelle Taft is head bartender at Death and Company in New York, N.Y. makes all three.
Creating a great winter cocktail can be done in different ways, explains Coyle. "Temperature, how the spice reacts chemically in the mouth or body or even the way one has come to perceive the flavor over time," she says, "that level of comfort-invoking sense memory might spring from a variety of wells."
How to make a hot cocktail
Cocktails with at least one hot ingredient are the most obvious type to make in the cooler months. Cocktails crafted with tea, coffee, hot chocolate or a splash of hot water will provide warmth and comfort no matter how cold it is outside.
Drinks that fall into this category include Taft's favorite winter drink, a hot toddy, Tom and Jerrys (a type of warm rum-based spiked eggnog) and drinks made with other hot beverages like coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
According to Taft, when making cocktails with hot liquids both the taste and potency of the alcohol in the drink becomes diluted. That means it's important to look for an over-proofed spirit that's at least 50% alcohol. Your base needs to be "rougher, rugged and aggressive" for hot drinks, says Taft. If you don't use the right kind of base, the taste of the spirit "will get lost" and you'll lose the integrity of the drink.
"The trick to making a warm cocktail all begins with using the right glass to prepare the drinks," adds Johnson. "Using [a] favorite mug makes for easy handling." Johnson also likes using clear hot toddy glasses when making cocktails with rich wintery colors.
Paul Zahn, a national entertaining expert, says making a hot cocktail can be simple. He recommends trying a hot gin and tonic, using things you probably already have on-hand, if you aren't sure how to get started. "Simply mix some [gin] with hot water and add in tonic syrup," he shares.
How to make a warming cocktail
If hot cocktails aren't your thing, look for those made with warming spices. "Most warming herbs and spices stimulate circulation, which is helpful during cooler weather," explains Johnson.
"With cinnamon, you can recognize its warming quality immediately when you taste it, and it can be used to flavor a variety of drinks," he says, adding that "ginger is a warming herb that adds a spicy kick to cocktails."
Taft likes using ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and star anise for winter cocktails. Don't be afraid to experiment and incorporate your favorite winter flavors. "Szechuan peppercorn, caraway, licorice, saffron and countless [other spices] are now making regular appearances in cocktail programs that were once dominated by simple spiked coffee and cider," says Coyle.
Two of Johnson's favorite drinks that use warming spices are a hot toddy with cinnamon and a Winter's Spirit cocktail with ginger. For winter drinks, Taft likes using a rye whiskey that's "peppery and spicy." He uses vanilla to soften the notes.
An easy way to infuse winter cocktails with warming spices is to make a simple syrup infused with spices. Taft likes this method because it's easy and can be prepared in advance. To make an infused simple syrup, heat equal parts water and sugar on the stove until the sugar dissolves. Then, while the syrup is still on the stove add whole spices like cloves, cinnamon sticks or slices of ginger into the mixture and strain the spices out once the syrup has cooled. Next, pour a little simple syrup into your cocktails to easily add a hint of winter flavors to your cocktails. Want to add even more wintery flavors to your simple syrup? Zahn shares that when he makes simple syrups in winter, he uses a "brown sugar base ... to get that nutty flavor profile and [add] warming elements."
Another method to infuse cocktails with winter flavors is to roast whole spices slightly and allow them to cool. Then, add the whole spices to the cocktail while mixing and strain them out before drinking. This method is effective but can be time consuming while entertaining.
Taft warns against using ground spices since they will be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to strain out of a syrup or cocktail.
How to incorporate seasonal flavors into a cocktail
In cooler months Taft stays away from fruity flavors like peach and watermelon since they are more common in the summer. Zahn likes looking for seasonal flavors like pomegranate that are only in season in the winter months and finding creative ways to use them, like using pomegranate juice in mulled wine and other cocktails.
To add more complexity and introduce new flavors, Taft recommends using a modifier (an alcoholic ingredient that isn't the base of a cocktail) in place of a quarter of the base spirit, up to a half ounce. For winter, Taft likes using plumb brandy, but modifiers come in a range of flavors including espresso and bitters.
Another way to make a drink seasonal is to add a smoky element. Taft likes Japanese whiskeys that have a smokey flavor not found in American whiskey. If you don't like whiskey or can't afford the more expensive whiskeys with this flavor, there are other ways to obtain a smokey flavor. Some mixologists garnish cocktails with a roasted marshmallow or use a smoking cinnamon stick to introduce seasonal flavors into their cocktails. To use the cinnamon stick method, light a cinnamon stick on fire and let it burn for a few seconds before blowing it out. Immediately place the smoking cinnamon stick on a heat-proof plate or cutting board and put your cocktail glass over the smoke. Allow the smoke to swirl around in the glass before making your cocktail as usual.
As a bonus, because the flavors or many winter cocktails are rich and intense, they can easily be made without the alcohol for sober or underage guests.
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