Warming Winter Drinks

by Hoke Harden

The idea of serving alcoholic drinks to warm up the winter chill is as old as winter itself.  First it was warmed up cider and wine and ale, because…well, because that’s all they had.  Later, when distillation was discovered, spirits were added to boost the brew a bit.  As other beverages came along the universe of warming winter drinks expanded constantly.  Now there is a dizzying array available to warm your day and your spirits.  Let’s look at a few of them, both ancient and modern.

The Ancient Wassail
The ancient tradition of the wassail bowl came from our Anglo-Saxon cousins.  Wassail itself derives from the Saxon waes hael, which meant to your health.
The custom and the drink came from the seasonal toast to the apple crop, a necessary ingredient to the cuisine and culture.  (The nobility drank expensive wines and fancy beers; the commoners drank cider and the cheaper ales.)

Mind you, we’re not speaking of the type of pretty apples you find glistening in produce stores today; these were most often the nubbly and gnarled and stubby little apples with exceedingly tart flavors---all the better to make tart and tangy cider.

The apple tradition carried on to the Americas as well.  Remember the stories of Johnny Appleseed?  They were true.  ‘Johnny Appleseed’ was a real person---but the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to intone) was that rather than being a somewhat whimsical wandering early-day hippie do-gooder, Johnny Appleseed was actually a canny real estate investor.  He would stay a couple of years ahead of the westward frontier, planting his apple groves in likely spots so they were ready when the pioneers arrived. 

Why were apple groves so necessary to these hardy folk?  Apples made apple cider (as well as hard cider and apple brandy) and cider was the drink of the Americas.  It was rare, very rare, in those days not to see the ever-present barrel of cider on the farmer’s front porch.  It was safer to drink than water; the malic acid and alcohol protected against bacteria and spoilage.  So Johnny’s ready-to-go apple orchards were prime real estate.

The wassail tradition remained as well, since it provided a warm and filling and spicy version of cider.  Wassail is simply a hot mulled cider, after all, with the ingredients and flavors changing according to the region.
Here’s a good, standard Mulled Cider:
Mix apple cider in a saucepan with cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, bay leaf and citrus zest (orange, lemon, or lime).  Other spices can be added if you wish.  Bring the mixture just to a boil, then turn to simmer and cook for about 30 minutes.  Strain the mulled cider into a warming dish and serve. You can garnish at serving with fresh citrus slices and fresh spices if desired.
If you spike the mulled cider, simply pour the liquor of choice into a cup, then fill with the hot cider.  Some folks also serve their cider with a spiced butter mix, by mixing butter with brown sugar and various spices and putting a dollop of butter on the top at serving.
To make it even more interesting, and to pack in a more impressive punch, include the next level of apple beverage, apple brandy.  Whether Calvados (the French Norman version, usually aged in oak barrels) or the American version, Applejack, apple brandy will boost the spirit level and intensify the wassailing aspects of this traditional drink.  Applejack is also great at enhancing the seasonal recipes for pork and root vegetables.

Hot Mulled Wine
For the upper crust, instead of cider there was hot mulled wine.  Almost every culture had their own traditional recipe to warm the hands, the stomach and the heart in the depths of winter, and the recipe tended to be dependent upon how much the host wanted to impress their guests with the exotic and expensive spices they could afford to use.  This was ostentation indeed, since the spices, laboriously shipped from faraway lands, were literally worth their weight (or more) in gold and jewels.

Again, this combination of wine, fruit, and spices widely varied, but today the most popular version remains the Nordic-inspired glögg, often rendered as glog or glug.

And here’s a standard glögg recipe from the Scandinavia Travel site on About.com. 

Scandinavian Glögg
·         1 bottle of red wine
·         0.5 Liter inexpensive brandy or vodka
·         10 cardamom pods
·         1 cinnamon stick (broken down)
·         1/2 orange peel (dried or fresh)
·         1/2 lbs sugar (regular or lumps)
·         Optional additions: 5 cloves, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup almonds, 5 dried figs

Heat the wine and brandy spices, fruit, and nuts in a pot (and any optional additions you might like.)  Be careful not to boil the mixture; just let it simmer for about 45 minutes.  Then, strain through a cloth to remove all additions.

Serve your Glogg hot over lumped sugar (or with regular granulated sugar).
Optional: You can also serve the Glogg with raisons or almonds. If you'd like the drink to be stronger, use more brandy. This Glogg recipe makes approx 1.5 Liter (close to 1/2 gallon).

You can find any number of pre-packaged mixes for mulled wine and cider these days.  But why use a mix?  Making mulled wine is not that difficult; it’s hard to screw up (just remember not to let the wine boil!); and it’s fun to make.  Paying an inordinate amount of money for bundled ingredients you can find in any grocery store is questionable.  Paying money for what is probably stale, dried out, and flavorless sugary powders is more so.  Do it yourself: heat some wine, add some brandy, and play around by adding the fruits and spices that appeal to you. 

Again, to add a kick to the mulled wine, use more brandy.  For a heavier and sweeter style, use a rich ruby port.  Or for variety, consider using any of the multitude of fruit and spice-based liqueurs out there.  Black Raspberry—Chambord.  Pomegranate—Pama.  Bitter Orange—Cointreau or Grand Marnier.  There’s even a great (although hard to find) St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram from Jamaica that makes a wonderfully spicy addition to a mulled wine.

The Hot Toddy
The toddy, in the bartender’s lexicon, is elegantly simple: any alcoholic drink that is heated up, or to which hot liquid is added.

In former eras, toddies were often given to children (with considerably larger sizes provided for the adults) to alleviate sore throats and winter colds, said toddies consisting of whiskey or brandy, hot water, lemon, and optionally cinnamon and cloves.  Even during Prohibition, doctors were allowed to issue prescriptions for medicinal use of whiskey.  For obvious social and medicinal reasons, that’s not done anymore, of course; but it speaks to the efficacy of toddies for adult use only.

An old English variation of a hot toddy was to use Scotch Whisky and heavily steeped black tea with added fruits and spices, as this made for a stouter drink with astringent tannins, while serving the English penchant for putting tea in everything possible.  It’s an old bartender’s trick to add small amounts of tea in cocktails to add body and character.

You can also make your own version of a tea bag for your toddy: put mixed savory herbs and flowers and dried cranberries into a small patch of fine mesh cloth, bundle it up, tie it with a ribbon, then add it to your favorite whiskey in a cup.  Pour hot water into it, let it steep, and you’ve got a very adult version of your Aunt Tilly’s tea.

Another approach is to spice up the whiskey before you add the hot water or tea.  If you’re a bourbon lover, put Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey in an infusion jar, add about four slices of dried apples (make sure they are unsulfured) with two or three sticks of cinnamon.  Let it sit for about two or three days, strain, and mix with hot water to your taste.  Delicious!

With the popularity of whiskey liqueurs flavored with honey, nothing could be simpler than to pour a healthy measure of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Liqueur into your hot tea.  Garnish with a slice of lemon and you have a comforting warm winter drink in no time at all.

In Colonial America, of course, we had the ubiquitous rum toddy, or hot buttered rum.  Practical fellows, those Colonial forefathers; they used the expedient of simply sticking a red-hot poker from the fireplace into the flagon of prepared rum to heat it up.  Thus foregoing unnecessary dilution, one supposes. 
It was even said that one signer of the Declaration of Independence was so fond of his rum toddies, he was admonished by his peers in session---for three reasons: the incessant toddies, the loquaciousness that ensued, and the frequent trips to the jakes that were entailed.

The making of the toddy is as simple, or as complicated, as you wish it to be.  The ingredients likewise.  Though most people use the addition of hot water, even the fireplace poker is optional, though a bit messy.
One note of advice here:  after making several hot rum toddies, one drinker was signally unimpressed, complaining that there just wasn’t that much flavor there.  When he mentioned he was using silver Cuban rum, the reason for his disaffection became clear.  With the substitution of dark, aged rums, or the British style Navy Rum redolent of dark molasses and freighted with spices, he understood why these drinks were so popular. 

If you’re toddying for the first time, try Coruba Jamaican Rum, Gosling’s Black Rum, or Lamb’s Navy Rum.  And don’t hesitate to add various fruits and spices, particularly nutmeg and clove and vanilla, for these have a good affinity for dark rums. Or choose from the abundance of Spiced Rums, since the spices are already in the bottle before you start.

Hot Cocoa
Legions of fans would never forgive us if we overlooked the category of hot cocoa drinks for winter warmers.  There’s something so rich and comforting in cocoa, it’s always popular in winter.  Add Peppermint Schnapps and it’s even better.  Garnish with a peppermint candy cane for the festive holiday effect. 
Of course, you could also double up on the chocolate by adding Godiva Chocolate Liqueur. And since chocolate goes with everything---or so chocolate lovers tell us frequently---don’t stop there: add that soulful and satisfying favorite, Grand Marnier Liqueur, for rich orange flavor laced with cognac.

Hot Coffee Drinks
By far the largest category of warming winter drinks, the amazing variety of hot coffee drinks seems endless.  If there’s an alcoholic beverage available, surely someone somewhere has put it in coffee to see how it tastes.  Perhaps not surprising in this devoted coffee culture, it usually tastes good, whether it is the simple but satisfying shot of bourbon in a cup of coffee or an elaborate confection of multiple ingredients capped by a final dramatic flaming flourish upon delivery.
Let’s look at some of those variations:

Spiked Coffee
There are numerous liqueurs that go well in coffee. And what could be simpler than adding a jolt to your joe.  Some of the most popular spikes are Frangelico, soft and fragrant with hazelnuts; Grand Marnier, that bitter orange and cognac combo; Kahlua, a coffee on coffee (D’oh!) enhanced with lavish vanilla; Amaretto, with its distinctive almond flavors; Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur; and the effusive and slightly herbal Benedictine & Brandy.

Classic Irish Coffee
There is something so perfectly right in a good Irish Coffee, something so deeply satisfying, warming and invigorating in that perfect balance of dark coffee, sugar, sweet whipped cream and the clean snap of Irish Whiskey it is an irresistible warming winter drink.  But it has to be done correctly.
For the perfect Irish Coffee, you have two options: first, you can travel to San Francisco, head down to the Embarcadero, follow it around until you get to the Buena Vista Bar.  You’ll know you’re there when you can smell the waft of whiskey and coffee permeating the air.  No one makes more Irish Coffee than the Buena Vista, and no one makes it better.  It’s the perfection that comes with making thousands upon thousands on a regular basis.  Irish Coffee is the Buena Vista hallmark, and they’ll happily serve one up for you.
Your other option is to learn to do the perfect Irish Coffee at home.  This requires finding precisely the right roast, grind, and blend of a coffee base.  A good Irish Whiskey. A dab of sugar (Major Hint:  use brown sugar!) in the coffee. And the crowning touch,  a hefty dollop of fresh hand whipped sweet heavy cream.  The true secret to the great Irish Coffee lies here; this is the crucial part, taught by an ancient gnarled Irish bartender in Dublin: take a spoon and invert the bowl over the surface of the coffee; slowly and carefully slide the cream over the bowl of the spoon until the cream rests gently on top of the coffee.  Don’t mix the cream and coffee, for the true beauty of the great Irish Coffee is to sip first through that mustache-inducing layer of sweet, sweet cream to get to that first shocking heat of biting black coffee and the second comforting warmth of Irish Whiskey.

Orleans Coffee
A hot coffee drink with a slightly decadent New Orleans French Quarter flair, this is a blend of black coffee, cognac, and Benedictine liqueur.  Take a strip of orange zest, stud it with cloves, and drop it to the bottom of your coffee mug.  Blend French Cognac and Benedictine Liqueur in a saucepan and warm it thoroughly.  Pour coffee in your mug, then flame your Cognac/Benedictine mix (Careful!!!  This is dangerous and you should practice it extensively before you try it for real!  Spill or splash and you’ll have a potential disaster on your hands.  Literally.) and pour over the coffee. The Orleans is impressive as entertainment; it’s also very tasty as a warming coffee drink.

Spanish Coffee
Even more entertaining to make than the Orleans Coffee, and considerably more elaborate, Spanish Coffee is a crowd-pleaser.  Do your bartender a favor though, and don’t order this during happy hour when he or she is busy.  This drink takes time and care to make properly.  If you want to make it at home, here’s how.
Sugar the rim of a tempered glass ( so it will stand up to the heat).  Pour a half ounce of Bacardi 151 Rum into the glass and light it.  Turn the glass regularly so as the rum flames it caramelizes the sugar—just caramelizes, mind you; don’t burn it away entirely.  As the rum flames, sprinkle small amounts of powdered cinnamon and nutmeg into the flame.  This is both visually pretty and aromatizes the air with spice.  Add a shot of Kahlua Coffee Liqueur, a splash of Cointreau, and fill with fresh black coffee.  Put a dollop of fresh whipped cream atop, then sprinkle the powdered cinnamon and nutmeg over the cream.  The flame will go out as you begin to add the other ingredients---but if it doesn’t, simply put a cloth napkin over the top of the glass to smother it quickly.

Keep in mind this is only one variation of a Spanish Coffee---there are many out there, each with a different twist in ingredient or technique.  You can find them easily with a google search.
We’ve managed to touch only the surface of the many and sundry warming winter drinks out there.  There are hundreds more to choose from.  Or you can get creative and devise your own, with your very own distinctive touch.  What sounds good to you?  Try it!

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