When I still tended bar, the first cold snap of fall always meant it was time to add another burner on the counter for hot cider drinks. Mostly the specialty of ski resorts and country retreats today, spiked hot cider, hot cocoa, coffee and tea drinks don’t get much play at “serious” bars, and the trend seems even to have fallen off in taverns and other likely spots. Americans prefer their drinks cold, even if there’s snow on the ground, but the arrival in the last year or so of hot punches is a sign that just because old-style hot drinks like spiked cider aren’t en vogue doesn’t mean there aren’t customers looking for temperature variety in their beverages.
But the hassle factor seems to keep many operations from bothering, as managers figure guests can have a bad Irish Coffee or be damned. I have one solution: warm, not hot, drinks. Think about it; the first thing most customers do when they get a hot drink is to cool it off; either that or they sear their lips by accident. That drink is barely warm by the time they’re done.
The same is true of cold drinks; by the time most customers get to the bottom of their glass of anything, it has reached room temperature. More than a few drinks I’ve found fine at their chilliest point seem suddenly undrinkable when they reach temperature. Most drinks made with lots of ice or a high chill factor are appreciated because of two factors: The drink has been sufficiently watered to lower the alcohol burn and open up the flavors, and a drinker’s palate has been numbed slightly so that what sharp edges remain in the drink are hard to discern.
Hot drinks don’t have those advantages: The alcohol fumes explode from the drink and attack the open pores on your tongue. Warm drinks (served between 60EF and 100EF or so) would require tepid water or other fluid rather than ice as the alcohol softener and some higher proof spirits might seem too strong as the temperature rises, but consider the idea as a form of toddy for someone with heat sensitivity.
On a cold day, a glass of Irish whiskey lightened by some leftover room-temperature tea sweetened with honey benefits not at all from chilling. Cassis in lightly warmed strong herbal tea is a fine bridge between sunset and dinner in the late fall. Many of the herbal spirits and cordials are custom made for a warm bath treatment, all by themselves or with a twist of citrus.
Here’s another plus: a little citrus in warm fluid goes a much longer way, and the enhancement a lemon or orange peel offers is much more pronounced when warmed. Freshly ground spices, too, get a chance to play a bigger role in warm drinks. See for yourself and grate some cinnamon or nutmeg over a warm and cold drink at the same time; there’s no comparison. Anyone already playing with warm and "not hot" drinks or who has any similar ideas, drop me a line at [email protected] — I can’t wait for the day that winter menus offer three sections: hot, cold and other.