During the summer months, cocktail lovers favor thirst-quenching and often sweet drinks, says Kate Nelson, bar manager at State Street Provisions in Boston. For her, winter is a time to create drinks with more character. “Not that there’s anything wrong with sweet drinks—sweetness is a very important part of any balanced cocktail—but I like drinks that are bitter and complex,” she adds.
When the temperature drops, the call is for cocktails that feature the warming flavors of aged spirits, bitter liqueurs and spices. “It’s fun to play with these bold flavors,” Nelson says. “And because people want something that will warm them up, spirit-forward drinks have been very popular this winter.”
Flavorful cocktails featuring ingredients like amari, liqueurs, jams and syrups are on trend in winter, says Anne Louise Marquis, national portfolio brand ambassador for Campari America. “Winter is a time to create drinks that are meant to be sipped slowly, embracing the complexity of more dense and rich flavors,” she says.
Whisk(e)y is the instant go-to for many mixologists creating winter cocktails, and though it’s a spirit that sells well year-round, it’s especially popular in the colder months, says Jenn Harvey, bar manager at Temple Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “People still love the tried-and-true favorites, but a lot of people are open to smaller craft whiskies. We’ve been getting a lot of calls for Glendalough Irish whiskey.” Harvey’s T.C.D. cocktail ($11) comprises Glendalough Double Barrel, Nux Alpina walnut liqueur, Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic bitters, hot Carlson Orchards cider and a cinnamon stick.
Gil Izaguirre, beverage director at Chicago restaurant Honey’s, favors whiskies, rum and amaro in his winter recipes. His T. & T. cocktail ($13) features Early Times Bourbon, Ramazzotti amaro, Dolin Dry vermouth, Nux Alpina, house-made black pepper–Demerara simple syrup and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters. Also incorporating amaro for a bitter element, the Monkey Business ($13) at The Hawthorne in Boston comprises Monkey Shoulder, Nonino amaro, house-made vanilla gomme syrup and a whole egg, garnished with grated nutmeg. The drink was created by the venue’s owner and bar director Jackson Cannon, who refers to it as a “more refined eggnog.”
Cocktails with comforting richness are ideal when there’s a chill in the air. At The Dorsey—a cocktail bar at The Venetian in Las Vegas—lead bartender Juyoung Kang’s Green Toddy ($16) mixes Jameson Irish whiskey, honey, hot green tea, and a house spice mix comprising cloves, star anise, cinnamon, pink peppercorns and dehydrated lemon.
With the popularity of aged spirits in winter, baking spices that bring out the layered flavors of these spirits are an obvious choice for creating cocktails that are warming and also complex. “Many of our winter drinks incorporate a lot of spices, like my Sailor’s Toddy, which is served warm and is perfect for a chilly day,” says Nelson of State Street Provisions. The cocktail ($10) blends Rittenhouse rye whiskey, Old Monk rum, Atlantic Brewing Co.’s Cadillac Mountain stout, Punt e Mes vermouth, Demerara simple syrup, Angostura bitters, hot water and a cinnamon stick. “Old Monk is a dark rum from India with a very distinct spiced flavor, with notes of vanilla and baking spices. Rittenhouse adds a slight bite, while the stout gives some chocolatey notes and Punt e Mes is added to balance some of the sweetness from the Demerara syrup,” Nelson adds.
Just as mixologists reach for fresh strawberries and watermelon in the summer, they turn to seasonal ingredients in the winter as well. Apple and citrus flavors are very common in winter cocktails, notes Campari’s Marquis. “I’m seeing Grand Marnier popping up a lot on cocktail menus—its spiced orange and Cognac base make it a great complement to brown spirits,” she says. Her Derby Hat Punch blends Wild Turkey Bourbon, Grand Marnier, honey syrup, fresh grapefruit juice, Brut Champagne (brand varies) and grated nutmeg.
“I love creating cocktails at this time of year because you can play with heavier spices and exotic fruits with richer, fuller texture,” says Izaguirre of Honey’s, adding that blood orange is a favorite of his right now. His Half Blood Prince cocktail ($13) mixes Khor vodka, Averna amaro, Bittermens Tepache spiced pineapple liqueur, house-made blood orange–Sri Lankan tea syrup and lime juice.
Although whisk(e)y-based sipping cocktails will always be popular in winter, Kang notes that she’s seeing “more refreshing and non-traditional winter cocktail styles coming out—drinks that still feature common winter flavors, but are lighter, like fizzes and sours.” She adds that gin continues to be popular throughout the winter among her guests. Her Juniper Myrrh ($16) features St. George Terroir gin, lime juice, house-made eucalyptus-rosemary gum syrup and Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut Champagne. “Cinnamon and nutmeg are always winter favorites, but licorice, star anise, and herbs like eucalyptus, rosemary and thyme are also great wintertime ingredients,” Kang adds.
In addition to gin, Kang says that mezcal is gaining a lot of traction with consumers as a wintertime spirit. At Honey’s, Izaguirre also notes this trend. “Mezcal is growing in popularity with its variety of aromatics and smoke levels, which work well in wintertime drinks,” he says. His To Barbados and Back ($13) comprises Banhez mezcal, Libélula Tequila, Suze liqueur, house-made grapefruit and Combier Pamplemousse liqueur syrup, lemon juice, house-made grapefruit–Earl Grey tea syrup, egg whites and a spritz of rose water. At The Hive, a cocktail lounge located above Honey’s and where Izaguirre also manages the bar program, his Ol Boy’s Club ($15) blends Banhez, Libélula, Meletti amaro, house-made chile de árbol tincture, house-made pink peppercorn syrup and lime juice.
Whether going the more traditional route with Bourbon and baking spices or pushing the boundaries with fiery and smoky flavors, wintertime tipples pack a big flavor punch. “I love winter cocktails for the sheer fact that they seem to have more complexity and depth with each sip,” Kang says. “Plus it’s sweater weather—nothing tastes better than a nice cocktail when you’re in a cozy sweater.”