Warm winter drinks. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.
Warm winter drinks. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Embrace the best of winter's warm cocktails

By M. Carrie Allan Time of article published May 24, 2020

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In a recent cold-ish weekend, I spent an hour whipping up batches of warm sipping drinks, all of which can be made with and without alcohol.

If you're in a cold spot - or just in denial and trying to drink accordingly - you might give these a try. And here are some tips for making winter warmers.

Stir it up, low and slow

Obviously I wasn't making boozy hot drinks when I was a kid, but my first oblivious encounter with food science probably came from eye-balling that film that forms when a neglected pan of hot chocolate sits over heat long enough for the proteins to coagulate. 

I didn't know the technical term for it, lactoderm, which means "milk skin," or more practically, "gross." If you're using dairy in a drink, keep the temperature low and stir it regularly. This applies also if you're using a plant-based milk, some of which thicken or change texture if they boil.

Heat changes flavour - for better and worse

If you're making a drink that involves infusing with spices, toasting them before they go into the liquid can help bring out their flavours (and also smells great). Do this over low to medium heat, and stay close; you'll want to move the spices around the pan so they don't scorch. When they start smelling good, you've reached the right spot.

On the flip side, heat also can bring out unpleasant bitter flavours in citrus juices and change the flavours of other fruits, making them more concentrated and jammy. That can work just fine in a drink, but you should keep it in mind; if you're making a warm drink that contains fresh citrus, you want that citrus to spend as little time over the heat as possible, so add it last and get it off the heat quickly. Likewise, cooking a wine (including vermouth or sherry) will alter its flavours - one of the many reasons not to waste a great bottle of wine in a cocktail, especially if it's going to be warmed.

Heat does not mean bye-bye booze

Contrary to what you may have heard, applying heat to a drink doesn't mean all the alcohol will cook off. Alcohol does have a lower boiling point than water, and if you heat, say, a pot of spiced apple cider with rum in it on the stove to 78 degrees (the boiling point of ethanol), as much as 60 percent may cook off. But if you instead heat the cider to a simmer, add the rum and let it reheat only briefly, virtually all of the booze will still be in the drink. Consume accordingly.

Do not burn the house down

Alcohol fumes can catch on fire - beers, wines and low-ABV liqueurs aren't dangerous on this front, but anything over 40 percent ABV has the potential to light up. Working over a gas stove, I'm particularly mindful about this. While it's unlikely to flame up, be safe: Don't heat up a pan and then pour straight hard liquor into it. 

In all the accompanying recipes, you should warm up the non-alcoholic base of the drink first, then add the booze, resulting in a much lower-proof mixture getting rewarmed briefly before service.

The Washington Post

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