Irish Coffee, Blue Blazers, and Hot Toddies

Advice on hot drinks from the experts, like Samuel Beckett, the NIH, and Kingsley Amis.

Hot Toddy.
A nice warm hot toddy.

Image by jrwasserman/Thinkstock

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.

6. If the mood strikes, treat a hot-drinks occasion as an opportunity to explore the spurned liqueurs at the back of the cabinet—the mouth-puckering chocolates and dolorous hazelnuts and persistently regifted crèmes de menthe. Follow your fancy with those, in combination with a decent base spirit, as you please, using the likes of the almond tea toddy as a model. And if you’re headed to a high-end liquor store, then lemme give you 40 bucks for allspice dram and a bottle of Nocino so that I might do the same.

7. Samuel Beckett once said that “making love without being in love is like taking coffee without brandy.” I respectfully disagree. A nonbrandied double latte has never left me feeling raw with postcoital despair. Well, once.

But what did the writer mean? According to his biographers, Beckett directed the sentence to Peggy Guggenheim, his main girl at the time, when trying to cool her out after she’d caught him cheating. What he meant was, “Peggy, baby, them other girls don’t mean nothing to me.”

8. I recently visited a restaurant that claimed, very plausibly, to serve the best Irish coffee on the East Coast. Its bottom layer was a compound of espresso, simple syrup, and Powers Irish Whiskey. Atop this lay a broad band of heavy cream that had been brought to a quasi-solid state in a cold cocktail shaker; it was fluffy magic and offered invigorating contrast with the steaming drink.

Indeed, that Irish coffee was so handsomely composed that it forced me to comprehend the distance between, on the one hand, a true coffee-based drink and, on the other hand, a cup of coffee with a little something-something in it. Nevertheless, these are both legitimate beverages: Go ahead and put anything you want in your after-dinner coffee. Old Italian guys do it every night. Is it redundant to add Kahlúa or Allen’s or Tia Maria to your after-dinner coffee? Don’t ask silly questions.

If Powers isn’t to your taste, try Jameson, which has a minty tilt, or Bushmill’s Original, which is presently hep. I see that there’s also a brand called Writers Tears, but I refuse to try it until the distillers guarantee they raise their writers cage-free and without hormones.

9. Hot buttered rum boasts a decadent texture, but the sharpest cocktailians dislike it intensely. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury wrote, “I believe that the drinking of Hot Buttered Rum should be permitted only in the Northwest Passage and, even then, only by highly imaginative and over-enthusiastic novelists.” A recent “cocktail moment” found charming Ms. Rachel Maddow denigrated the drink with a disgust she might hesitate to unleash on a simmering pot of Santorum.

These experts are correct, of course. Served in anything larger than a demitasse cup, a hot buttered rum will congeal before you know it. And before it’s even gotten glommy, the butter will have infiltrated your face and your pores and perhaps left a thin film of grease on the panes of your horn rims. Pardon me, but if God had meant us to enjoy our drinks transdermally, I would be writing this article inside a hot tub filled with sake.

10. Near as Gramps can tell, the brandy Alexander—brandy, crème de cacao, and cream, traditionally served cold to bouncy old ladies—does not owe its name to Alexander Woollcott. Nonetheless, Woollcott—the drama critic and famous sweet tooth—put away a record number of them. This feat of imbition is all the more impressive given that it cut into Woollcott’s superhuman caffeine program—30 cups of coffee a day.

Think of the hot brandy Alexander as the inverse of 30 cups of coffee—condensed into one mug. Prepared with steamed organic half-and-half, it is a hall-of-fame soporific—silky and mirthful and with none of the spooky side effects of Ambien. Grate some nutmeg on top for a first-class seat on the Nog Express. Next stop: the land of nod.