Lately, every time I want a cocktail, I’ve been reaching for the kettle.
It’s not this way during the summer, of course, when my impromptu weeknight drinks tend to involve chilled soda or tonic. But this time of year, I’ve adopted hot cocktails as my go-to. And while I have nothing but respect for a stiff whiskey toddy, the world of hot cocktails can go much, much further.
There are an infinite number of drinks you can shake or stir with ice. Why can’t the same be true of hot cocktails? I’ve done hot Negronis. I’ve done hot Sidecars. At this point, I think of a toddy less as a particular drink, than as a verb: To toddy.
Toddy a particularly delicious fruit liqueur. Toddy that great dark rum. Toddy a complex, piney amaro.
There are limits, of course. Not every classic should have a steamy alter ego. A hot martini? No thank you. And I’ll pass on a hot margarita. The appeal of certain cocktails really does rest in the temperature; let’s keep our gimlets ice-cold and refreshing.
But water, just off the boil, is a tremendous asset in bringing together flavors. In some ways, hot drinks are even simpler than their shaken or stirred counterparts. To coax flavors from pantry ingredients into traditional chilled cocktails—hard spices like cinnamon and star anise, say, or roots like ginger and turmeric—you need to grind them, or muddle, or make a syrup. With hot cocktails? Water extracts flavors from even dense, brittle ingredients, essentially steeping them as a tea. When bartenders make cocktail syrups, they often infuse the relevant ingredient (rosemary, say, or vanilla) into hot water before dissolving in a sweetener. With hot cocktails, you’re essentially building those flavors à la minute, right in the toddy itself.
Aromas—so critical in a cocktail—are easier, too. On a chilled drink, it’s often the garnish that makes the difference; the bright burst of citrus oils from a twist, or the verdant scent of mint or basil. But with hot cocktails, steam carries those aromas for you. Add a slice of ginger, a cinnamon stick, or a slice of orange, and their distinctive scents are lifted right to your nose.
Most drinks require some kind of sweetener, perhaps sugar or honey. Usually, we dissolve either one in hot water so they can properly incorporate with the other ingredients. For hot cocktails, of course, we can skip that step entirely. You can even think of adding a few ounces of hot water as an analogue to shaking or stirring, integrating various ingredients and providing dilution.
So how do these drinks play out in your kitchen? It’s as easy as pouring liquid into a heat-proof glass and topping with water from the kettle. Fruit liqueur toddies are a recent favorite of mine. A good berry liqueur, even a classy orange liqueur, opens up beautifully when warmed. (And a Grand Marnier toddy feels appropriately decadent for the holidays.) An ounce of the spiced pear liqueur from St. George Spirits, with three to four ounces of hot water, is like a rich holiday dessert in a glass.
Other fruit elements also work well. See if you have any jam or marmalade in the fridge; I love a big spoonful of raspberry jam with bourbon and lemon. A pour from the kettle dissolves the jam right into the drink. (Use seedless jam if you want a cleaner drink, but I don’t mind a little texture.) And after Thanksgiving this year, a spoonful of cranberry-ginger relish was the perfect addition to a brandy toddy.
Other kitchen staples can be toddied, too. Try cutting a few thin slices of fresh ginger and turmeric. (Peeled, or unpeeled and washed thoroughly.) Add to a glass, pour the hot water right over, let steep for five minutes, then stir in a big glob of honey and some good dark rum. A cinnamon stick is a lovely garnish, if not strictly necessary; this toddy is aromatic enough on its own.
Some amari (Italian bitter liqueurs) are delicious when warm, their complex botanicals opening up in the steam. Look for something on the sweeter side; I don’t know that there’s much of a market for a Fernet-Branca toddy. But rich, honeyed Amaro Nonino with hot water and lemon is a marvel.
Even Campari takes well to being toddied, which brings me back to that hot Negroni. Start with the three standard ingredients in their standard proportions—an ounce each of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Since hot water can make some elements seem a bit harsher than they are, I like to add a teaspoon of honey, too. Add two to three ounces of steaming-hot water and stir until that honey dissolves. A slice of orange takes the place of a twist. And because it’s fun to get a little extra with the garnish, a piece of star anise works perfectly, its elusive aroma commingling with bitter bouquet of Campari and gin.
Unorthodox? Enough to make a classic-cocktail geek cringe, perhaps. But on a frigid December night, it might be even more satisfying than the original.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious