Defeat the Polar Vortex with Hot Cocktails
It’s that time of year to hold the ice and start adding boiling water to your mixed drinks.
Winter showed up early and uninvited this year, suggesting that forecasters may need to roll out a term more frightful than “Polar Vortex.” Note: “Iron Maiden of Arctic Anguish” is available.
In any event, the early onset of winter heralds a premature start to the hot drink season—so break out your Toddies and your Tom & Jerrys, your Wassails and your mulled wines. It’s time to put away the coupe and haul out the mug.
Unless, of course, you are a person with a deep aversion to hot alcoholic drinks. Which, according to irrefutable evidence I’ve gathered during rigorous surveys of companions along the bar in recent years, is quite a few of you. Also, bartenders seem averse to hot drinks, although for another set of reasons.
This is shameful. Hot drinks are a gift from a god who wants you to be warm. It’s for good reason these were once more common than iced drinks.
So let us examine the rise and fall of the hot drink.
To begin with, hot drinks have been with us for millennia. References to hot drinks crop up as early as in the epic of Beowulf, which dates to around 800 A.D. Here, the Middle Agers enjoyed a hot mixture of beer and fortified wine. This may not sound especially delicious, but have you ever lived in 800 A.D.? Houses were constructed of wattle and daub, which sounds made up and Tolkienesque, but I assure you is not. People lived in houses essentially made of sticks and mud. The only insulation was hot and alcoholic and consumed through the mouth.
Hot drinks persisted and enjoyed a resurgence in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Hot Toddy, which was made with Scotch or rye and could be found in many taverns. The Flip was ascendant—a mix of rum and beer, heated with a red-hot iron rod. The fevered iron caramelized the sugars and singed the grains, and resulted in a toasty, warm drink so delicious it made February shorter.
The Tom & Jerry—a sort of warmed Eggnog—took root in the 1820s, and remained popular in America and England for more than a century. Eventually, Prohibition sought to eradicate it, upon which Tom & Jerry went feral, mostly hiding out in in the obscure barrooms of Wisconsin where it could be found through much of the last century.
The fact that warm drinks persisted in a place like chilly Wisconsin makes sense. But the fact that it also cropped up in cities like Orlando, Florida, does not. Yet the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1935 that, “Hot gin punch is the latest Orlando drink and is calculated to do the work of two Georgia mules going down hill.”
For the most part, however, hot libations faded from the popular drinking lexicon in the last century for several reasons.
One of the main reasons is, not surprisingly, central heating. Before that, people were dependent on fireplaces or coal grates for staying warm. These were often ineffective at heating both the front and back of you simultaneously, so you had to rotate as if on a rotisserie. And still that didn’t do much to warm your insides. For that, you had a combination of hot liquid and strong drink, often enlivened with something fortifying like eggs (Tom & Jerry) or butter (Hot Buttered Rum).
We’re not so far from that era as you may think. I once interviewed a man in his 80s who lived in Maine, and he informed me that winters there weren’t so bad since they invented “that.” He nodded to the wall, indicating the “that” was a thermostat.
Also, one of the lingering effects of Prohibition may have been a longstanding dislike among many Americans for the taste and smell of alcohol. After half a generation’s absence, they suddenly found it sharp and clinical, never mind that a clinic is where you go to feel better.
The problem is that heat makes volatile vapors more volatile. So a hot drink seems more alcoholic than a cold drink. It thus stands to reason that hot drinks would amplify the distaste for alcohol. Hot chocolate has not gone out of favor, nor has coffee or tea. But Hot Buttered Rum? It’s gone from everyday sipper to a tipple in the drinker’s curiosity cabinet.
Among professional bartenders, hot drinks are unpopular for another reason: inconvenience. Making these concoctions requires a whole other step—bringing water to a boil, as well as dealing with a potentially scalding substance in the tight confines of a bar’s work area. At restaurant bars, there’s also the annoyance of having to go into the kitchen to heat up some water, where one might be subjected to jibes from dishwashers and waiters, so it’s natural that such drinks would be been exiled from the regular rotation. (The Irish Coffee—a freak of persistence—has survived in part because many bars and restaurants already have a pot of hot coffee within reach. Also, it’s basically a vehicle for whipped cream, so one scarcely notices the alcohol.)
The hot drink has not been entirely eradicated, of course. Like its chilled cousin from antiquity, the Eggnog, hot drinks often make a fitful return as the holidays encroach. Yet they still remain a novelty, pressing their noses up against the cold windows watching the classics be revived. I once walked into a bar in New Orleans where they featured a warm Whiskey Skin on the cocktail list, which seemed a welcome step toward normalizing deliciousness. But when it arrived the steaming mug provoked considerable agitation and commentary along the bar, mostly in the key of “What in god’s name are you drinking?”
This winter, of all winters, I would like to see a push for the return of the hot drinks to normalcy. Putting them back in regular circulation would be a fine and welcome thing.
There are unused crock pots filling countless basements, eager to be repurposed as heated punch bowls. And newer technology is providing a wind at our backs. Many hot drinks require merely the addition of steaming water, and an instant-boil tap is increasingly common in homes and establishments. If the re-plumbing is too daunting, for $30 or so you can procure a compact electric tea kettle that uses some form of black magic to bring a pot to a boil in a minute or two. It’s more convenient than heating an iron rod, or even making one’s way to the kitchen. What’s more, drinkers are clamoring for authenticity, and what’s more authentic than sipping a piping hot mug from 800 A.D.?
As I type this, I’m slowly demolishing a Hot Buttered Rum, because it’s winter here in New Orleans. The evening temperatures have plummeted to a brisk 52 degrees, which is well below freezing when measured in Southern degrees.
Ah…now that’s a fine drink. I don’t even think I’ll need turn on the heat for a bit.