On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Joanna Sciarrino and Zach Geballe dive into a beverage category that deserves more love: hot drinks. At the height of winter, a Hot Toddy or Irish Coffee can be delicious warmers — if they’re made right, that is.
For this Friday’s tasting, Sciarrino and Geballe taste hot cocktails they prepared themselves. Sciarrino drinks her iteration of a classic Toddy, made with Amaro Nonino. Meanwhile, Geballe sips a cocktail that tastes just like its name: Blueberry Tea.
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast,” Friday edition. We are missing our friend Adam.
Z: I might prefer your version of this to Adam’s.
J: Oh no. We miss Adam.
Z: I’m sure he won’t listen to this.
J: So we are in February now. Not while we’re recording, but while you’re listening to this. So, let us all rejoice that we made it through the seemingly longest month of the year. And you made it through your Dry January.
Z: It’s a slog. It was just fine. As I said a few episodes ago, one of the things that is mildly easier about it in pandemic times is that there aren’t as many things to go do that I miss out on. In other Januarys, there’s one or two events that, maybe in another year, I would go to. But it’s been relatively calm. With having two kids, I don’t miss waking up hung over. We’ll start that very soon, I’m sure.
J: This week, we were going to pivot away from the TV shows we’ve been watching recently to talk about some reading we’ve been doing. So Zach, what have you been reading?
Z: There are two things that I wanted to mention here. Listeners will perhaps know, as we’ve discussed in shows, I’m something of a sci-fi guy outside of my love of wine and other things. And I read a really fascinating book recently that’s kind of sci-fi and kind of not, called “The First Fifteen Lives of Henry August.” I’m not going to go too deep into it other than to say the setup is very cool. Henry August is this guy who is born in 1919, lives a life, dies, and then is born again in 1919 with the memories of his previous life. But everything around him is the same. No spoilers here; this is all given away very early in the book. He finds out that he is not the only person for whom this is true. There’s a plot and some exciting stuff happens. But it’s an interesting concept that there are these small numbers of people who are living these loops of their life, but with knowledge of their previous lives. That was really good.
J: Have you ever seen the movie “Palm Springs” with Andy Samberg?
Z: I have not.
J: It’s a very similar premise.
Z: Yeah, or like “Groundhog Day.” Same thing. But no, I have not seen that one, although I heard of it. This is not a, definitely not a funny book.
J: No, it doesn’t sound funny.
Z: But it’s quite good. And then I’m working my way through “Wine Girl,” which is Victoria James’ memoir that came out a year and a half ago now. As much as I love wine and drinks, I actually have a limited taste for reading about them. I like to read about it, but it needs to be interspersed with a lot of other things because so much of the rest of my life is beverage alcohol. So my reading is often more fanciful. How about you?
J: Yes, I felt that for a long time with food and food memoirs and things like that. I was doing that so much for work, and I didn’t really want to do that in my private time. Recently, I’ve been reading Louise Penny’s “Gamache” series, which is a murder mystery series. Those are really great and quick reads. I think there are 13 of them or so, and I’m on the third. Also on my nightstand, I keep this book called “Tiny Crimes.” They are these very, very short murder-y or crime vignettes written by a bunch of different writers and edited by the same people. But they are truly three to five pages each. I like to read those before I go to bed. That’s a normal thing, right?
Z: Sure, why not?
J: Little crime vignettes.
Z: I mean,, what could possibly put you in a better headspace for sleep than reading about grisly murders and the like?
J: So today, we’re going to talk about hot drinks. This is something you and Adam have talked about in the past.
Z: I’m sure he’ll weigh in on the next episode he’s on to say that we’ve got it all wrong. But my sense of it is that Adam is not a lover of hot drinks. It’s understandable; he’s not alone. Many people prefer their cocktails cold or not at all. But I think you and I both share a certain love of hot drinks in a variety of forms. And it seemed like a good time, as it may not be January anymore but it’s still cold. to talk about how we can make some of our warm drinks more exciting and interesting.
J: Yes. I think it’s really interesting how many people have a strong opinion about hot drinks. I like them; I don’t dislike them. I don’t really think too much about them, I guess.
Z: For a lot of people, there’s a specific time and place that they’re the thing you would want. Even if they like hot cocktails, they’re not going to order them in the summer. They’re not going to order them during the day. They’re a cold-weather, nighttime kind of thing, which is understandable. A lot of people don’t come in from the snow and say, “You know what I really want? A Margarita.” It makes total sense. But I think that the other thing about hot cocktails, and this is where I want to start today, is that unfortunately, they often are made very poorly and very haphazardly. Whereas they would not think to make a Manhattan at home or a Daiquiri at home without actually measuring things and understanding ratios. That all goes out the window when it comes to hot drinks. They just kind of think, like, “I’ll put in a little of this or that, fill it up with my hot liquid, and call it good.” A good hot cocktail needs to be proportional in the same way that a stirred, shaken, or whatever cocktail needs to be also.
J: Yes, they need to be balanced. And I think that they need to be thoughtful and treated like a regular cocktail. But I certainly had my fair share of dive bar Hot Toddies that were made with maybe hot water, a shot of bourbon, and a lemon. And that’s it.
Z: That’s a rough go of it if you’re not getting a sweetener. Let’s actually start with the Hot Toddy, because I think the Hot Toddy is one of those drinks that has tremendous potential as a drink. But also, more than others, it suffers from this problem. In part because, unlike some of the other drinks we’ll discuss, its hot liquid component is just hot water. If you go too heavy on the hot water, everything tastes watered down. So when you make a Hot Toddy, because I know you made some maple syrup ones recently, what’s an ideal Hot Toddy for you?
J: In that instance, I was working with the resources available to me.
Z: Were you in the Canadian wilderness and had to tap your own tree?
J: We were in an Airbnb in upstate New York. You can certainly use hot water, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity to play around with the hot liquid that you’re using to impart more flavor and more depth. Experimenting with some teas is a nice way to do that. I’ve even seen juices used as well in place of water. Obviously, you need to then consider your sweeteners in that instance. Typically, I’ll use hot water and then some sort of sweetener. I like to make a concentrate, and then figure out what their dilution needs to be. Always keep the amount of alcohol the same in each mug.
Z: Gotcha. Is it typically bourbon for you? Or do you play around with that, too?
J: Some sort of whiskey. But I like the idea of using different spirits as well. Most people associate a Hot Toddy or hot drinks with whiskey or rum. But I think that you can definitely consider other things like brandy or amari. Those are really interesting to use as well. And to really experiment with other spirits that you have. Maybe not something like vodka.
Z: You want a brown spirit of some sort.
J: Or even a mezcal could be really interesting, because it brings a lot of flavors to the table. What about you for the Hot Toddy?
Z: One of my favorite variations on the Hot Toddy that I make for myself in the winter is to use a darker rum, and I like to use molasses, because they really reinforce each other. Then I’ll use a little bit of lime as opposed to lemon. You’re still getting that very classic Hot Toddy experience; it’s warm and invigorating. As compared to some other hot beverages, it doesn’t feel as heavy as some other hot beverages can feel. I like honey a lot, and actually one of my other ones that I’ve made at times is a mix of blended Scotch. And then I have a smoked honey that I use, and that’s really nice as well. Again, it’s reinforcing the flavor and the spirit and the flavor and the sweetener. Of course, with dark rums, you’re getting something that’s made from molasses and then you’re adding some molasses into the drink. With the smoked honey and Scotch, you are really playing on that peaty, smoky note in both cases. The citrus is a big piece that sometimes people don’t think about mixing up. That’s why I like to use lime with my molasses and rum Toddy. Lemon for your classic whiskey formulations. You could even do fun things with grapefruit; if you’re going into it with rum, if you were not doing molasses, if you were kind of keeping it lighter. If you’re going to do a mezcal and agave nectar Toddy, with either lime or grapefruit, that could be really nice. Or orange, frankly. It’s such a dynamic and versatile formulation. But again, the most important thing is I don’t want to use more than maybe 6 ounces of hot water at most, if I can avoid it. You just lose so much of the subtlety of the spirit and of the sweetener if you’re then over-diluting and it just doesn’t taste like much. If you want a hot drink with a little kick to it, that’s not the worst thing in the world. But I prefer to make them a little smaller. You get a little more concentration that way. If I need to move on to another hot thing, that’s what tea or coffee is for.
J: They’re also a really great opportunity to experiment with spices. In classic Hot Toddies, you’ll find your cinnamon sticks and maybe a whole star anise or something like that.
Z: Sometimes you’ll see cloves.
J: Studded into the lemon!
Z: I had to do so many of those in one of my bartending jobs. It was 15 minutes of brunch prep studding lemon wedges with cloves. It was better to do it than the service.
J: I also think that there’s a lot of opportunity there to experiment with other spices like cardamom. You’re kind of into this idea of black pepper for a more savory route with these. It could be really good with ginger, of course. And then also capitalizing on some of the trends that we’re seeing in the hot drinks space, adding some alcohol and turmeric or a golden base or something like that. That could be interesting, too, and you can go more savory.
Z: The last thing in that note is, another way to think about integrating those spices if you want to, is that you can literally add them to the liquid as the drink there. You can steep them in. But another thing you can do as your sweetener is, instead of using honey or using molasses or using agave nectar, you can make a spiced simple syrup and use that as a platform to add those flavors in a way that’s a little cleaner. One thing that can suck about a Hot Toddy with spices in it is that you’re kind of drinking around the spices. You have to fish them out or whatever. You can use that as prep time if you’re doing that. For some people, me included, the Hot Toddy is like, “This is what I want. I was going to throw everything together now.” Yes, I’ll throw some cloves in there or a cardamom pod, because I have that lying around. I didn’t think to use my previous day’s spiced syrup. But if you are planning on this for an event, or you’re going camping, or you’re going to a cabin and you’re going to do a little prep, that can be a really nice way to pack a lot of those flavors in without having to actually add the spices themselves to the drink.
J: What other hot drinks?
Z: We have to talk about coffee now. I will say this: My one exception to my general appreciation for hot cocktails is I’m not a big fan of hot buttered rum. It’s a point of a little bit of conflict in my house because it’s my wife’s favorite hot drink. But I just have never been able to get there. The oiliness of it is too much.
J: The bulletproof coffee.
Z: Can’t do those, either. I tried one, and I can see how this is a thing for people. It just is not a thing for me. I’m not there. Do you like hot buttered rum?
J: I don’t dislike it. But I don’t know that I’ve ever ordered, or seen, hot buttered rum on a menu before. And I’ve never made it myself.
Z: Lucky you.
J: Is it made often in your house?
Z: Well, usually my wife is the one who makes it. Again, this is the life of a bartender. I’ve had to make the basis for all these things at least once or twice in my life. It’s actually not that bad, but it’s one that I never was enthusiastic about.
J: Now I’m curious. So, you make a butter base, right?
Z: Yeah, exactly. You kind of stir it in with your rum and your water. It’s not that dissimilar from a Hot Toddy in certain ways. For a lover of the drink, they would say that it just adds richness. To me, like I said, it comes across as oily, which I don’t love. I don’t know. It’s never done it for me.
J: OK, moving on.
Z: Yes. So, coffee. I want to hear your thoughts on coffee drinks first. And then I have some — pardon the pun — “hot takes.”
J: I like coffee drinks generally. They can also fall victim to being very haphazardly put together. It can be sh*tty coffee with a splash of Irish whiskey or whatever you want to throw in there, and that’s not too impressive of a drink. But I think that a really well-made Irish Coffee, like the one that I had at The Dead Rabbit not too long ago, that’s a superb drink. Like the Hot Toddy, there’s a range of success for coffee drinks.
Z: You’re totally right about how they often fall victim to that. The other problem with ordering a hot coffee drink out is, depending on the drink you order, it’s probably the category of cocktail that is least understood by bartenders and made most inconsistently by bartenders. Whatever, people can like this however they want. If you walk into 10 different bars and order an Irish Coffee, you might get eight different drinks. Not because the bar is like, “Oh, this is our take on an Irish Coffee.” Even in my experience training bartenders, you talk a lot about your special specialty cocktails. You talk a lot, maybe, about how you make your classics that are going to be likely ordered, even if they’re not on the menu. But hot drinks, in the same way that the Espresso Martini was for a long time, are just not specced out at a lot of bars. There’s not a constant formulation. At some places, you order an Irish Coffee and it comes with Baileys in it. Sometimes, you order an Irish Coffee and it comes with just Irish whiskey on it with no sweeteners. Some people put whipped cream on it; some people won’t. They won’t ask you; they might ask you. There are all these different things. And the same is true with your Spanish Coffees, your Mexican Coffees, etc. All these things that fit into this broader category. And it’s such a bummer because my favorite kind of hot drinks are hot coffee drinks. With a Hot Toddy or something like that, you’re really having built all of the flavors you want in the cocktail through your spirit, sweetener, spices, and citrus; the water is just a medium to make the whole thing palatable. Coffee, especially well-made coffee, is so full of flavor itself and offers so much, that you can then play with it as a bartender or as a drinker. It’s such a bummer to me that it’s such a disrespected category. Part of that, like I said, is just a lack of consistency. Part of it’s because a Spanish Coffee is a pain in the ass for a bartender; it’s a time-consuming and laborious cocktail. I understand why bartenders, including me, would groan. Sometimes the order comes in or you start making one at the bar, and suddenly three people see you light something on fire and they’re like, “Oh, I want that.” And you’re like, “F*ck, now I’m even more in the weeds.”
J: Tell me about a Spanish Coffee? Are they always flaming?
Z: Are they always flaming? No, because a lot of people will shortcut it. To me, the correct way to make the drink is, you have to light the overproof rum on fire. The whole thing is that you’re trying to caramelize the sugars on the rim of the glass. That’s kind of the point of the cocktail, because if you’re just pouring overproof rum and triple sec in and then coffee liqueur, it’s fine. But it’s about the caramelized sugar and the flavor transformation of the drink when you light it on fire. And frankly, the visual appeal.
J: The presentation.
Z: The presentation. Like at Huber’s in Portland, Ore., which probably makes more Spanish Coffee than anyone. It’s like f*cking wild to go in there and order it, because the bartenders literally go to your table and have a bandolier of all the ingredients that they need. And it’s wild to watch.
J: It’s tableside, I love that.
Z: And they make them in 30 seconds, it’s incredible. I don’t know how. It’s practice, obviously. But that cocktail is from a different era, in terms of what bartending was about, but it’s such a cool drink when it’s handled right. But it’s such a bummer when it’s not. It’s not worth it to me, if you’re just going to pour the ingredients in a glass and maybe rim it with some sugar and just kind of hand it to me. Like, what am I doing here?
J: That would be really upsetting if anybody had it on their menu and then decided to serve it like that.
Z: I think that’s the problem with cocktails like the Spanish Coffee, in certain ways. Theoretically, you should be able to order that in a bar. You might be able to go into most bars in the country and order a Hanky Panky, like you were talking about the other day. And even if they don’t know what it is, they have the ingredients. It’s not a complicated cocktail to make once you understand it. But a Spanish Coffee, even if someone looks it up, are they going to be willing to take the time? Do they understand the technique of how to properly make it? Maybe, but probably not. I think you and I have some things to drink, right? We gotta get to this part. My drink is getting cold.
J: My drink Is getting cold, too.
Z: It’s not a hot drink anymore. It’s like a lukewarm drink. So, what did you bring?
J: I’m going to say it’s an Amaro Nonino Hot Toddy.
Z: OK, cool.
J: In the interest of time, the bases are hot water with 2 ounces of an amaro. I used some lemon juice, orange zest, and a Maraschino cherry with a little bit of its syrup. And it’s good.
Z: Very nice. So, I have one of my favorite hot drinks that we haven’t mentioned yet, which is the Blueberry Tea. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Blueberry Tea.
J: I’m not.
Z: The Blueberry Tea is a great cocktail that blows people’s minds, because despite the ingredients, it actually tastes like blueberries, which is kind of wild. It’s an ounce each of Grand Marnier and amaretto and about 4 to 5 ounces of black tea. I’m using Darjeeling here, and it’s just wild. It’s really tasty. That combination of flavors somehow comes together to produce a drink that definitely has the notes of its ingredients, but I swear to God, it tastes like blueberries. I don’t understand how, but it does.
J: I gotta try this.
Z: For sure. It’s super easy to make. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s tasty.
J: What are your thoughts on mulled wine, Zach, as a wine person?
Z: Oh, good question. I have mulled wine on my list of hot drinks, and I forgot all about it. It’s fine. I’ve never been a big fan. It doesn’t really do it for me. If it’s good wine, then why are we heating it? I’ll just drink the wine. If it’s bad wine, then why do I want to drink it?
Z: That’s kind of my take on it. That’s maybe a little bit unfair. Mulled wine can be a nice thing to do in the winter with a great bottle of wine that you had some of it but don’t really want to drink any more of it or if it’s been open for a couple of days. I will say, if you’re going to adulterate your wine, I’d rather drink sangria than mulled wine. So that’s me. What about you? Do you like mulled wine?
J: I don’t drink it often, but when it’s available to me, I’ll have a cup. I’ve never mulled wine myself, though. But some people are really into mulling wine.
Z: In the broader category of booze-ified hot drinks, l’m here for your spiked hot chocolates, hot ciders, etc. I’m all about that. If you have a bottle of peppermint schnapps, you might as well put it in your hot chocolate. I don’t really know what else I would use it for. Those are cases where I’m totally fine with using vodkas or something innocuous to slip in there, just to make it boozy, as opposed to adding to the flavor. Especially with hot chocolate, you get such a rich flavor set already. ‘Tis the season for hot drinks, and I do enjoy them.
J: Yes. Well, Zach, this was a great chat. We will have Adam back with us next week and another special guest. I’m really looking forward to it.
Z: Yeah. And I really want to know, listeners, if you guys have favorite hot drinks. Let us know at [email protected]. If it’s something we mentioned or something else, it’s always exciting to know what you guys enjoy drinking.
J: Yes. All right. Well, I’ll talk to you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.