Behind the Bar

Anatomy of the Hot Cocktail

A hot toddy next to an orange peel.
Hot drinks are a highlight of the winter season, but what are the best ways to formulate and execute them? Photos by Emily Schultz.

With winter coming (or already here, depending on where you’re reading this), the time for warm, tis-the-season beverages has arrived. But what is it about a hot cocktail that makes our toes tingle? We connected with a few experts whose bars reliably churn out the classics, along with new recipes that will surely match any snow day. We wanted to know what makes a perfect hot drink, and the best ways to execute it, even when you’re in the weeds.

Must have components

The best hot drinks begin with setting the mood, according to Eduardo Guzman, beverage manager at The Optimist and JCT Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta. It’s all about experience and memory. “I think about the fresh smell of a Christmas tree or the warm punch that grandma makes during the holidays,” Guzman says. “The main component of a warm drink is a story.”

The pages of that story are filled with baking spice and winter fruits, those classic scents that can send us all back to childhood, no matter what holiday was celebrated at home. “Baking spice is a must,” says Chas Williams, head bartender of The Oakland in Detroit. “Whether it be clove or cinnamon in a nice whiskey, or nutmeg and allspice as garnishes, have something in the drink that connects the guest with other experiences from this time of year.”

Another key component is full flavor. Many hot cocktail recipes require water and ingredients that many not be hot already, says Hastings Cameron, head bartender at Gib’s Bar in Madison, Wisc. “Those items could chill [or water down] the drink, so they should be kept at room temperature and have a concentrated flavor that holds up to dilution.” And, it’s hard to overdo the booze, Cameron says. “We keep as much bonded and over-proof booze in our well as possible, like Evan Williams White Label and Rittenhouse Rye.”

On the practical side, don’t skimp on the glassware, says Jeremiah Schenzel, bartender and creative management team member at The Cocktail Club in Charleston. “Hot drinks are ideal for a social events where patrons can sip casually. Good glassware will have a handle so you don’t burn your hands.”

A chocolate drink is in a clear mug with a handle and whiskey is in the background.Keys for a successful hot cocktail: a spirit that can stand up to dilution and glassware with a handle.

New takes

Everyone loves a solid Toddy and the rich Hot Buttered Rum, but bartenders are constantly exploring new ways to give their guests that warm, comforted feeling. At The Oakland, Williams says they’ve been inspired by tea, for an as-yet unnamed recipe that combines Darjeeling tea, dried lemon peel, and dried licorice root. It’s then mixed with barrel-strength bourbon, green chartreuse, and lactart.

The Optimist did a riff on a Hot Toddy last year that featured Burnside Bourbon, Crater Lake’s Hazelnut Espresso vodka, and chamomile tea. This year they’ll use house-spiced “Rock Candy Rye” whiskey (yes, sweetened with rock candy), chai tea, ginger liqueur, cherry herring, and lemon. JCT will feature the crock pot cocktails guests have come to expect (a rotating selection of wassail, spiced cider, or cranberry punch), and the Mexican Hot Chocolate, with Hangar One chipotle vodka, coffee liqueur, house-made hot chocolate and sea salt.

The Hot Buttered Rum is still a worthy tableau for Cameron at Gib’s Bar. He’s been improvising with Cryovac-ed El Dorado 5-year and Hamilton 151 with butternut squash, lemongrass, and curry leaves, cooked sous vide. “We whip butter, highly aromatic coconut oil, angostura bitters, and powdered Demerara sugar to form a batter. The frothy beverage is garnished with nutmeg.

Working service

In theory, hot cocktails are beautiful, aromatic, and delicious. Logistically, hot drinks are a potential nightmare. The simplicity comes in the prep, according to the bartenders we consulted.

On busy nights, Schenzel says “we have found the crock pot to be our best friend. All we have to do is put all the ingredients in, mix them well, heat it up and set it to hold that temperature.”

Guzman also likes the Breville kettle. “Equipment like that allows us to work quickly without losing technique and without cutting corners.”

In chilly Detroit, Williams says they keep two 1.5-gallon coffee urns filled with mulled wine or their special tea, an electric kettle, and French presses.

Here’s a parting pro tip for the end service — savor batched out leftovers that won’t make it to the day with closing staff. Nothing says “shift drink” like a fragrant mug of something special before heading into the night.

A steaming brown drink with a lemon peel in a glass mug. What better way to enjoy a hot drink than at the end of a shift, before heading into the cold winter's night?

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