This month, VinePair is exploring how drinks pros are taking on old trends with modern innovations. In Old Skills, New Tricks, we examine contemporary approaches to classic cocktails and clever techniques behind the bar — plus convention-breaking practices in wine, beer, whiskey, and more.
If you’ve ever lingered too long over a cocktail, it may not be as enjoyable to finish as your first sip. But before you push aside that tepid drink, you should know that once upon a time, room temperature cocktails were a thing.
Scaffas, mixed drinks made and served at room temperature, have been around since the 19th century, back when ice was pricey and hard to come by. They’re traditionally made from a mixture of undiluted spirits such as liquors, amaros, and liqueurs, as well as the occasional bitter, tincture, or shrub. And given that Scaffas are made only with ingredients found in pantries (rather than refrigerators), the name, thought by some to be an informal Italian word for “cupboard,” is fitting.
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Early Scaffa recipes can be found in classic cocktail books like Jerry Thomas’s 1860s “Bartenders Guide.” Trader Vic’s 1948 book by the same name describes Scaffa as “an old time drink […] enjoyed more by men than by women, since they are merely mixtures of strong liquor pointed up with a bit of liqueur or cordial or a dash of bitters and served without ice.”
And, since Scaffas require no shaking or stirring, they were thought to be “an easy way for World War I furloughs to get a quick, tasty drink without having to go to a bar,” says Sean Johnson, co-founder of Day and Night Cocktails, which offers bottled Scaffa drinks for delivery and pickup throughout New York City.
Nowadays, Scaffa is enjoyed by imbibers of all genders, recently appearing on cocktail lists at NYC bars such as Amor y Amargo and becoming a go-to for brands looking to bottle shelf-stable beverages during Covid-19 closures.
For Johnson and his business partner Blake Walker, this was a major reason for starting Day and Night Cocktails during the pandemic. When Covid-19 led to the temporary closures of their places of work, the two bartenders started the brand to make some extra cash and continue interesting conversations around drinks. “Scaffa requires no special tools, mixing, or any kind of at-home techniques. You just pour it and serve it, and it’s the same as how it would be at a bar,” says Walker. This ensured that each cocktail they sold to-go would be consumed the way the two mixologists intended.
While shelf stability is a major plus for Scaffas, the cocktails also benefit from their easily layered profiles. Without the added dilution of ice, flavors are at the forefront at every sip in a way that’s refreshing without being cooling. For Johnson, “if you drink something bitter, it will act faster than something that has a lot of dilution and ice in it.”
Of course, when it comes to warm-weather sipping, Scaffas may not be the ideal beverage. “It’s not what you reach for after a long day in the sun,” says Walker, admitting that a cold drink is your best bet.
Because of their inherent booziness, these mixtures are perhaps better suited as dinnertime aperitifs or nightcaps. But Johnson and Walker have also created Scaffas with flavors like grapefruit and lavender intended for daytime sipping. Like any good cocktail, these Scaffas can easily stand on their own, but because of their bitter, boozy palates, they can also be paired beautifully with charcuterie boards or even chocolatey desserts.
So, if you’re feeling lukewarm about the mixers in your fridge or find there’s no ice left in the freezer, there’s still the possibility of a great cocktail in your future. Scaffas prove that the only ingredients you need to make your next great drink can be found in the cupboard.