Grampa’s trick knee told him a cold snap was coming, so he started mulling over the fundamentals of hot alcohol.
1. Safety first. The first thing to look out for with hot drinks is the heat. The last thing you need, as a hostess sweating to entertain the guests inevitably crammed into your gracious kitchen, is for one of the gals to catch her sweater on fire while standing beside the grog. The reek of charred cashmere displeases. Exercise the utmost care with burners and sterno gels, and especially with trash-can blazes stoked by hobos huddling in the overpassed night.
If you want to drink hot cocoa with peppermint Schnapps, topped off with Reddi-wip, then I want to see your ID, and I also want you to know that Reddi-wip cans may be flammable at a high temperature.
The blue blazer—the flairful forefather of Promethean bar stunts, Jerry Thomas’ signature drink, the thing where you pass the cerulean gas from cup to cup—is best left to Looney Tunes characters unless there’s a fire extinguisher at hand.
A can of Reddi-wip does not count as a fire extinguisher. In fact, Reddi-wip may itself be flammable at a high temperature.
2. Another note on applied thermodynamics: In terms of the quality of the beverage experience, the problem is not the heat but the tepidity. They’re hot drinks, not warm drinks. The glow of the liquor should radiate through the purging scorch of the mixer and the good tingle of the seasonings. Get the drinks close to bubbling, and make them small. Served in large portions, hot drinks turn gaggingly unpalatable down the stretch as sweetness gets sticky and sediment piles into your epiglottis.
Always prewarm the cup.
Which cup would that be? In The Essential Cocktail, Dale DeGroff describes the classic Irish coffee glass as “an 8-ounce stemmed glass in the shape of a tulip … The glass forces you into the correct proportions … You don’t want the coffee-to-whiskey ratio to be any greater than 3:1.”
Nota bene: The cups from the tea service you received at your wedding hold about 6 ounces and the matching saucers fly true when Frisbeed.
3. According to the NIH, alcohol decreases your core body temperature. According to another widely respected medical research center, namely Kingsley Amis, the sweltering stuff “will affect you sooner than if you drank the same drink cold, chilled, iced. In those conditions the stomach must warm the stuff up to body temperature before absorption can take place; taken hot, it will start getting to you (or your girlfriend) at once.”
Plan ahead according to your individual needs and foibles and fetishes. It might be prudent to ensure that your designated driver has a ski rack on his vehicle, say, or to pre-arrange a tow for your snow machine, or to put in your diaphragm before you go out.
4. In his recipe for generic hot punch, Amis calls for French brandy (specifically, “cheap [but French] brandy”) and red wine (specifically, “nonlethal but unpalatable red wine”), and he suggests winging it with oranges and lemons and sugar and spice: ”You must use your judgment and keep tasting the result, which you will enjoy doing unless you are the wrong person to be giving the party.”
Tinkering, tailoring—it’s nice to assemble a dedicated kit of hot-drinks ingredients. Think of how charming it would be to reach into the cupboard and pull out your hot-drinks kit on a damp spring evening or on a sudden snow day or every Christmas Eve. I am dreaming of plastic honey bears and brown sugars and maple syrups; of whole nutmegs and whorls of cinnamon; of a little salt to cut sweetness and just a touch of black pepper to kick up the cup of cider bought at the bodega and rotated in the microwave.
You could toss in allspice berries (or allspice powder), cloves (or clove powder)—Gadzooks, is that pumpkin-pie spice?
You could go so far as to include fancy orange bitters and a Madagascar vanilla bean.
But go no further, no fancier. Ivan Chermyteff: “Sometimes there is simply no need to be either clever or original.”
Won’t you please consider assembling a hot-drinks kit? At the very least, stow a cinnamon stick in your go bag.
5. The hot toddy is the subject of innumerable sectarian disputes and the object of many obscure interpretations—to tea or not to tea?, and so forth. Let’s run through the basics.
a. Good bourbon is wasted on a hot toddy, unless it's really good and overproof. You are probably in the market for a brand retailing at, to use a term of art, “a mixable price.”
b. Good brandy turns a hot toddy into a faintly mystical experience on the meditative tip. It strongly promotes the illusion of good health. Use generous doses of lemon juice and honey, and trick yourself into believing you’re doing something wholesome and sustainable.
c. Good rum is most certainly not wasted on a hot toddy, and questionable rums can offer surprisingly sharp answers. If you hook up a 12-year-old El Dorado with a fat dash of Cointreau, a pot of black tea, a broad swath of orange peel, and some chocolatey bitters, you’ll be feeling insufferably contented in no time. If you have no El Dorado at hand, bear in mind that Gosling’s is good and that Captain Morgan has been known to buckle swash in this department.