A cocktail, writes the food historian Joseph M. Carlin in his book Cocktails: A Global History, “regardless... of what [it] is composed of, or when it is consumed,... is always served chilled; in fact, the colder the better.” By this standard, I can’t call any hot drink made with booze a “cocktail.” Carlin didn’t provide any alternative terminology. So I’ve decided this gives me license to ignore him—at least on this one point.
Whatever you choose to call them, hot beverages made with booze are especially delightful this time of year. There’s something sweet and old-fashioned about them: mulled wine is, you may recall, the preferred drink of Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, in It’s A Wonderful Life, and it got him laughed out of Nick’s Bar in Pottersville. But there’s also something luxurious and comforting about a drink that needs to be heated up. It requires time to make, and so it should take time to drink, slowly, in a comfy chair in front of a blazing fireplace or at a bar decked out with Christmas lights, while the warmth blooms slowly in your belly and spreads throughout your body. It’s so much better than walking home in the dark and cold.
There are an infinite number of hot, boozy drinks, but they can be sorted into five major categories, based on the main hot ingredient. I list them here in ascending order of decadence, from the practical to the liquor equivalent of velvet: perfect for the bright, shiny holidays and slightly ridiculous at just about every other time of the year.
The most basic of the hot water drinks is the toddy, a mixture of hot water (or tea or cider), a sweetener like honey or maple syrup, a lemon, and booze. Originally, back in colonial America, toddies were made with rum, but the definition has grown more liberal since then. Brandy, bourbon, and applejack have the nicer cozy winter flavors, but whiskey is said to have the greatest health benefits: the honey soothes the throat and the alcohol kills the germs. This is what loving mothers gave their children before cough syrup was invented. (Nobody is sure, by the way, why it’s called a toddy. Some claim that a toddy was a stick people used in colonial times to break off lumps of sugar from a larger loaf. Toddy is also the term for sap from the coconut palm that’s distilled into arrack, the original alcohol in punch.)
My favorite variation of the hot water drink, though, is hot buttered rum. Yes, this was a Life Saver flavor. The drink consists of water, sugar or simple syrup, and rum mixed together and topped with an actual pat of butter. My neighborhood bar blends the butter with spices and serves it with a ginger cookie perched on the rim. It’s probably just as well that they charge $10 a pop for it. This makes Hot Buttered Rum Night (an annual winter ritual) feel special and celebratory.
You’re going to drink coffee anyway, right? If you’re going to drink it at night, might as well add some booze, for the relaxing effects. (Even if it’s not scientifically accurate, you’ll have the placebo effect going for you.) The classic alcoholic coffee drink is, of course, the Irish coffee. In his book The Essential Cocktail, the bartender and cocktail expert Dale DeGroff is quite adamant that a true Irish coffee must be made in the special tulip-shaped Irish coffee glass to insure that there’s the ideal ratio of three parts coffee to one part Irish whiskey with room for a layer of lightly whipped cream on top.
There are endless of variations on the Irish coffee made with other spirits and named after their countries of origin: Highland coffee (Scottish whisky), French coffee (Grand Marnier), German coffee (schnapps), Italian coffee (amaretto), Mexican coffee (tequila and Kahlua), etc., etc., etc. I’m most fascinated, though, by the Christmas Morning, a drink in the book Gone Girl, described as hot coffee with a shot of cold peppermint schnapps. Doesn’t that sound delicious?
Like coffee, hot chocolate is one of those warm beverages you’re going to drink anyway. There’s no classic hot chocolate-based cocktail, but bartenders are have been infinitely inventive: rum, whiskey, tequila, bourbon, Kahlua, red wine. Peppermint schnapps once again sounds like it would be very festive, as would Goldschläger. This is the drink for your holiday brunch.
The Roman playwright Plautus, who lived in the second century BCE, mentions his contemporaries drank wine spiked with spices. Since then, just about every wine-drinking culture has figured out a way to infuse spices into red wine and that it tastes nice heated up in the winter. In English-speaking countries, it’s called mulled wine, although Dickens mentions a variation called Smoking Bishop in A Christmas Carol. In Germany, it’s Glühwein (the literal translation, “glowing wine,” is especially lovely). In Scandinavia, it’s glögg, or some variation thereof. In Brazil, where it’s drunk in June, it’s vinho quente. Wherever it’s drunk and whatever it’s called, it usually contains some combination of warming spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mace, cardamom, ginger—and citrus fruit. Sometimes you drink it with toast. Sometimes, after you infuse the wine with spices, you top it off with port and heat it up again.
Naturally, after people figured out that they could infuse their wine with spices, they realized they could do the same for cider and ale. In merrie olde England, these drinks were called wassail and aleberry. But only wassail got into the Christmas carols.
How committed are you to your hot winter alcoholic drinks? Are you willing to separate a dozen eggs and beat the whites and yolks separate and then combine them with rum and brandy and a bunch of spices in a special bowl purchased exclusively for purpose of serving one particular seasonal drink? Then the Tom and Jerry is for you! The drink’s origin is murky, but it definitely has nothing to do with the Warner Bros. cartoon; it dates back to the 1800s when the only mixed drinks were punches served in bowls. These days, it’s rare outside the upper Midwest, but the bars that do serve it are pleased as punch. (Geddit?) Trying it is my single goal for this holiday season.
If you’re feeling like going back even further in history, try making a posset or a caudle. Both date back the Middle Ages, both also have lots of whipped eggs and spices, like egg nog. The posset also has milk, while caudle has gruel. You can mix them with wine or ale, depending. If you really want to be authentic, heat them up by shoving a hot poker into your glass. (A more modern—that is, 1690s—variation is the flip, made with beer.) Back in the day, they were considered nice, soothing drinks for invalids. Which means it might be just the thing if the holiday hilarity catches up with you and you’d rather stay home curled up in bed.