Hooch: Hot cocktails for a cold winter

City Paper

Are you an imbiber who believes that the cold months constitute brown-liquor season? Some Facebook friends of mine discussed this a while back as if the whiskey-only-in-winter position was a given—up there with the hoary prohibitions against white slacks after Labor Day and the like. One even has a personal rule to forgo Manhattans in the fall until after the first frost. 

I can understand the broad strokes of this position. I mean, I wouldn’t order a rye Manhattan at a swim-up bar, or clutch an icy Tom Collins around a ski-lodge fireplace. But my bourbon and Scotch bottles certainly don’t gather dust during the dog days, as a nightly dram goes down as well in July as in January. And crisp Martinis are a year-round way to begin a big dinner out. Compounding things, these days distillers are rolling out amber gins and clear whiskeys (if you’re willing to count the unaged “white dog” some label as whiskey). 

A less controversial way to have the calendar dictate your drinking is to focus on hot cocktails, which are specifically geared toward cold-day consumption. (I’ll allow that Irish coffee might be an all-season sipper, as I suspect people order them for the caffeine more than the warmth.) My go-to winter warmer, especially when the sniffles strike, is a hot toddy of whiskey, honey, hot water, and a lemon slice studded with a few cloves.

And then there’s hot buttered rum. Imagine serving one of these at a Fourth of July picnic. I really knew little about these curious cocktails that come to us by way of the dairy case. They sound like something Mr. Fezziwig would serve on Christmas Eve. For mixology advice I turned to Brendan Dorr, president of the Baltimore Bartender’s Guild and chief shaker and stirrer at the B&O American Brasserie. He sent me a basic recipe: 1 pad butter, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, tiny dash of vanilla extract, 2 ounces of rum (Nicaraguan, 7-year-old Flor de Caña recommended), and 3 ounces of hot water. I followed this to the letter and settled in around a blazing wood stove to enjoy. The butter really adds a lush mouthfeel to this soothing, sweet cuppa. 

You can also crank up the volume with a variety of spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, allspice. Dorr even notes that a tiny pinch of salt is not amiss, either (unless you are using salted butter). And while butter’s presence is inviolable (not even your vegan friend wants a “hot margarined” beverage), the rum is not. “The nice thing about this cocktail is the ease of variation,” Dorr says. “You can sub out rum with any dark spirit: whiskey, brandy, even aged tequila.” 

A few nights later I decided to serve some at a dinner party. This time I took inspiration from (gulp) Martha Stewart, intrigued by her take that added ground ginger to the spice mix, along with orange zest and juice. I also got to wondering: So long as you are front-loading all these potent flavors, could a frugal host swap out the fancy rum for something cheaper? 

Only one way to find out. I secretly mixed up several mugs, some with Flora de Caña and some with plastic-bottle Port Royal rum from the Virgin Islands (by way of Halethorpe, where erstwhile Pikesville Rye makers, Majestic Distilling, now only bottles liquor made by others). I passed around the mugs for a blind taste test. First the good news. The orange added a fresh, fruity dimension folks liked. It’s a keeper for me in the future. But, uh, nobody had the slightest problem discerning (and preferring) the mugs with the good rum. Nobody.

So much for the hot buttered cheapskate.

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