How quickly the cold-weather months creep over Boston, covering us all like cocoons for what seems like an eternity. The days grow shorter and the nights darker still, and we just can’t shake off the winter chill that never seems to go away.
So what are we to do? How do we fight off the hibernal urge and soothe our soul, warm our bodies, brighten our days in these trying times?
With good spirits, of course! And I’m not just speaking about holiday cheer and positive thinking, I’m talking about the dark, warm, rich and creamy comfort that can only be found in a well-made cold-weather cocktail.
Hot drinks are always a winter favorite and are surprisingly easy to make at home. They can be whipped up in batches if you’re hosting a holiday party or made individually for your own personal enjoyment. The following are my variations of some quintessential winter cocktails to help get you through some of those nasty nor’easters. But don’t stop here; use these as inspirations to create your own twists on the classics or to create brand new drinks altogether.
One of my all-time favorites is mulled wine, a traditional hot drink of red wine, sugar and spices that has been served during the holiday season for centuries. Variations exist throughout the world: in Germany they call it glühwein, France has vin chaud and in the Nordic countries they take to serving glögg. Whatever you call it, this blend is sure to warm things up. It’s easy to make a batch at home and is perfect to share with friends. Here’s my recipe:
Add the allspice, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and star anise to a pot over medium-high heat to toast them, stirring frequently until very aromatic. Add the wine, sugar and vanilla bean and stir until the sugar is dissolved and the wine comes to a simmer, but don’t allow it to boil. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for 15–20 minutes. Zest the orange into the pan, add the brandy, stir and take off the heat. Strain, pour into heated mugs, garnish with a long orange twist and serve immediately.
Support local businesses by using wines like those made by Turtle Creek in Lincoln or Coastal Vineyards in South Dartmouth. For your own twist, Russell Orchards Winery in Ipswich makes a variety of fruit wines like black currant and raspberry that produce delightful mulled beverages. All of your spices can be picked up at Christina’s Spice Shop in Cambridge, and don’t be afraid to grab some others in order to put together your own personal blend. Experiment with different sweeteners, too, substituting white sugar, honey or agave nectar instead.
Maybe the most popular winter warmer of them all is hot apple cider. This has been a favorite in New England, where apple orchards have long been abundant. Since colonial times, settlers had been making both sweet and hard cider: sweet referring to the unfiltered and unsweetened liquid from fresh-pressed apples while hard is its alcoholic counterpart. Both continue to be popular today, but nothing beats a heated sweet cider infused with winter spices and spiked with your favorite spirit.
You can make your own cider at home by coring and cutting apples, puréeing them, then squeezing out the juice after placing the pulp in cheesecloth. If you’re not going to use it immediately, you should pasteurize it by heating it briefly to 160° before refrigerating it.
I actually prefer to purchase a locally made cider, where they do the work for you and make high-quality products you can trust. Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow and Carlson Orchards in Harvard both make beautiful artisanal ciders that are available by the gallon. The next step is to pick out your spices. I like to use a similar blend to my mulled wine:
Hot Apple Cider
Add the allspice, cardamom, cloves and star anise to a pot over medium-high heat to toast them, stirring frequently until very aromatic. Add the cider and orange and bring to a simmer, but don’t allow it to boil. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for 30 minutes. Strain and pour into heated mugs with 1½ ounces of your favorite spirit. This works equally well with bourbon, spiced rum and apple brandy. Garnish with a long orange twist or a cinnamon stick.
This is an especially fun recipe to experiment with flavor. Try juniper berries or coriander in your spice blend, or add fresh ginger and peppercorns for some zip. If you’re really short on time, both the hot cider and mulled wine can be prepped pretty quickly and left out to cook, sort of like a hot punch. Add your spices to some cheesecloth, tie it with twine, and place everything into a heated urn with a beverage dispenser. You won’t have to worry about straining out the spices, your guests can help themselves and the flavors will continue to infuse throughout the night.
One of the easiest hot drinks to make, and possibly the best known, is the classic Hot Toddy. It’s also a beverage that has one of the most ambiguous recipes, and is thus open for endless interpretation. It was long known as a cold remedy, a dram to soothe a sore throat or clear the sinuses. Some say it is of Scottish descent; others say English or even American. All we can really say is that it is recognized today as a drink of spirit, sweetener, hot water and lemon. This, of course, also makes it one of the most interesting of drinks, since we can continually tinker with its ingredients. Below is the recipe I prefer:
Mount in a heated mug and garnish with a long lemon twist studded with cloves.
Spiced Honey Syrup
Muddle 7 cardamom pods and 2–3 cinnamon sticks and combine in a cooking pan with ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger, 2 cups of honey and 2 cups of water. Bring to just before a boil over medium to high heat, then reduce and let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Take off the heat, let cool, strain and bottle.
Some will insist on Scotch for this one, and it does make for a tasty Toddy. Brandy and rye work equally well, too. Berkshire Mountain Distillery’s Berkshire Bourbon and Ryan and Wood’s Rye are some local favorites on the American whiskey front. Get your honey at Follow the Honey in Cambridge, or switch sweeteners and use raw, white or brown sugar. Squeeze a lemon directly in the drink if you prefer, or use some clove and star anise in your honey syrup infusion.
When all else fails, there’s no better way to warm the body and mind than with a rich, creamy and decadent dessert drink. Nothing fulfills this need better than a Hot Buttered Rum. The origins of this drink are hazy as well, but we can safely say that many in colonial-era New England enjoyed it. Boston became the center of rum distillation during this time and settlers were always looking for a good tipple to beat the winter chill. The drink in essence is a variation of the Hot Toddy with the ingenious addition of butter to coat and comfort. Recipes abound, but I prefer to use Chef Sewall’s signature butter recipe for my take:
Hot Buttered Rum
Mount rum, syrup and butter into a hot mug and fill with water. Stir until the butter begins to melt and forms a creamy head on top of the drink. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Combine 3 parts demerara sugar and 2 parts water in a pan over medium-high heat. Stir until dissolved, take off the heat and let cool. Bottle and refrigerate between uses.
Island Creek Oyster Bar House Butter
Allow the butter to soften, then combine ingredients and mix well. Roll into logs and wrap with parchment paper or store in a container and refrigerate between uses.
Feel like you’ve got a lot of butter on your hands? Use it as a spread on fresh-baked bread like we do at the restaurant.
For the rum, I find an aged, dark expression works best here, but feel free to use the kind you prefer. There’s a wealth of local rums available these days to choose from including Berkshire Mountain Distillery’s Ragged Mountain, Ryan and Wood’s Folly Cove, Bully Boy and Privateer.
You can also craft your own butter batter with spices like ground cinnamon and allspice, or add some brown sugar to the mix if you don’t want to make a syrup. And if you really need it on the fly, throw a tab of plain butter in your mug, add a pinch of sugar and spice, and be careful it doesn’t burn on the way down!
This season, I indulge you to fix up the winter warmer of your choosing to savor around the fireplace whether by yourself, with family, or with friends. But if you’ve got it in you to brave the cold, stop by Island Creek and I’ll mix one up for you.
Bob McCoy is bar manager at Island Creek Oyster Bar located in Kenmore Square. He can be reached at email@example.com.