Welcome to winter term here in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere. It had to get cold eventually and here we are, ready for the warm embrace of booze and bread. In particular, this is the time of year to savor darker spirits, brandies & liqueurs. Gates Otsuji,The Standard, High Line's 'Chef de Bar' offers seven tips and twists on the usual winter drink menu to get you through the long, cold months.
This is the perfect time for a Manhattan, an Old-Fashioned, a Boulevardier, or any other spirit-forward drink based on a brown liquor. What makes these classics work so well in sub-zero settings is their tendency to coat the mouth with flavor on every sip. Their unshaken (and therefore relatively un-aerated) dilution provides rich, long flavor arcs which showcase complexity, and enhance depth. If you’re already a fan of these stalwarts, try switching your base liquor to change things up — Instead of whisky in that Old-Fashioned, make it a dark rum, like Diplomatico.
Hot chocolate is a many-splendored thing. There’s the traditional Mexican version, with its cinnamon-inflected flavor, and rich gourmet chocolates, like Ghirardelli or Godiva, and even simple Swiss Miss packets to carry you back to your childhood. Some people like theirs with marshmallows, some with whipped cream. But have you tried it with peanut butter & mezcal? I didn’t think so. The salty peanut butter cuts the sweetness of chocolate while the smoke of the mezcal enhances both the peanuts and the chocolate. For something like this, a mezcal like Sombra is perfect: Bombastic smoke up front which doesn’t linger, allowing the sweetness to come through in the finish.
Here’s a recipe for two people:
• 8-10 Squares of Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet chocolate
• 1 Heaping Teaspoon of creamy peanut butter
•10 Ounces whole milk.
• 3 oz Mezcal
• Whipped cream (optional)
In a small sauce pan, break up the chocolate and add peanut butter and then milk. Place the pan over medium-low heat & stir slowly until the chocolate & peanut butter are thoroughly combined. Be careful to keep the mixture from coming to a boil; you don’t want to scorch it. Add 1.5 oz mezcal each to two large mugs, and when the mixture is steaming hot, pour it into the mugs. Add whipped cream. P.S. Here's a video of a drunk Mr. Peanut
Made by monks in the Grenoble region of France, Chartreuse is an intensely herbal, sweet liqueur with a nearly 300-year pedigree. The two most common bottles you’ll see are Yellow and Green Chartreuse, and you’re likely to already be familiar with the color of the latter. While it’s not uncommon for Chartreuse to be sipped neat, its aggressive flavor makes it a useful additive to several cocktails, like the Alaska cocktail (see below), or the Last Word, both of which pair Chartreuse with the botanicals of gin. Two other great things about Chartreuse? It’s okay if you don’t finish the bottle right away, because Chartreuse keeps getting better with age. And Chartreuse is also magnificent when added to hot chocolate. See above.
4. For a pleasant glow on your cheeks, snift your brandy.
Don't need a kitchen for this one. Just a glass and a bottle of brandy. Brandies come to us from any number of fruits, although most commonly from grapes. Calvados comes from apples. Poire Williams comes from pears. Palinka comes from apricots. Slivovitz comes from plums. There are also some liqueurs which are derived from brandies, like Grand Marnier, which adds orange to cognac.
Whichever one you try, drink it from a wide-mouthed glass, no colder than room temperature. Snifters are the optimal glass — the design of a snifter allows your hand to cradle the bowl of the glass, keeping it warm, while channeling the aroma toward your nose with every sip. The trick to achieving the warming sensation you’re after? Release the flavors from the brandy through gentle aeration, that is, by swirling the snifter gently between sips. Brandy tends to ride high on the palate, streaking across the roof of the mouth. While you’ll experience a coating texture with some sweetness on your tongue, the “taste" is actually going to happen in your sinus cavities, which leads directly to a pleasant glow on your cheeks. If your nose turns red, you might need to layoff. Also don't confuse snifting with snarting.
5. Brandy letter coding
If you're gonna snift your brandy you should probably just go ahead and undestand the basics. The most common letter codes you’ll run into are ‘VS,’ ‘VSOP,’ and ‘XO,’ which reflect the amount of time each spirit was aged before bottling. For the sake of simplicity, just remember that if you keep the codes alphabetized, the first (VS) will be the youngest, and the last (XO) will be the oldest. What happens when spirits are aged is a lot like what happens when you re-finish a wood floor — all the rough edges are sanded off to increasing smoothness, and new elements are added to the final result. Generally, the longer you age a brandy, the more weightless its flavor arc becomes, to the point that a fine cognac could explode with flavor on the tip of your tongue & float right down the back of your throat. In the good way, of course.
6. Try the Sailor’s Delight
Start by making a rich simple syrup with 2 parts demerara sugar and 1 part water. Demerara sugar, like light brown sugar or raw sugar, has a deeper flavor, like molasses without any bitterness. In a mixing glass, add three dashes of spiced bitters (think cardamom, falernum, cloves, cinnamon) and fill the glass with ice. Next, add 0.25 oz of the rich demerara syrup, followed by 2.0 oz of a darker rum (such as Diplomatico or Sailor Jerry). Stir to chill, and strain into a rocks glass over ice. For garnish, express the oils from a strip of orange peel, and drop it into the glass.
Technically, it doesn't have a dark spirit, nor is it flambéed, but this forgotten classic will warm you up faster than an Alaskan governor's politics. Put three dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters into a mixing glass, and fill the glass with ice. Add 1.0 ounce of Yellow Chartreuse, followed by 2.0 ounces of Tanqueray Ten gin. Stir well, and strain into a small coupe. The classic Alaska ends there, but if you feel like going the extra mile, splash a little Gran Classico & lemon juice into the mixing glass before stirring, and garnish with a grapefruit twist.
(Top Photo: Davide Luciano)