Thick cream, steaming mugs and plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg are all hallmarks of the season’s drinks.
It’s wintertime, just days away from Christmas, which means we want hot beverages that we can sip snuggled in a blanket or share, glasses clinking, while we’re surrounded by family and friends — no matter what the weather’s doing outside.
Austin bars and restaurants this month are responding to our desire for warm, sweet drinks with their own versions of hot chocolate, hot toddies and hot buttered rum, as well as that cool, creamy holiday classic, eggnog. They’ve also gotten creative and come up with seasonal twists on old favorites, such as the Bonneville’s Burnt Orange Old Fashioned with mint and cocoa nib-infused bourbon.
Drink your just desserts
Chances are good that a local bar with a seasonal menu has some sort of spiked hot chocolate currently available — and it won’t have any of the powdered stuff you can find at a grocery store. My favorite of all I tasted was at the North Loop bar Drink.Well, where the mixture of dark and milk chocolate, brown sugar, cream and a pinch of salt is served spiked with one of these three: Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, Green Chartreuse or St. George New Orleans Coffee Liqueur.
Pick one of those depending on whether you want the kick of chili peppers, a heady burst of botanicals or the roasted bitterness of coffee. I preferred the hot chocolate with Green Chartreuse, an herbal liqueur with a woodsy complexity that makes you want to continue drinking it, just to place what that intriguing element in the finish is. (The liqueur and its sister, yellow chartreuse, contain 130 different herbs, spices and flowers that their creators won’t name; it’s anyone’s guess why you keep sipping. Just know that you will.)
Drink.Well is serving the spiked hot chocolate along with hot toddies during the bar’s Winter Warmers event, going through Sunday this year. On that final day, Drink.Well co-owner Jessica Sanders said, you also can order a mug of the Tom and Jerry Punch, a much more involved variant on eggnog with rum and brandy. In the warm drink, they’re tucked below a veritable cloud of thick flavored batter, she said, made of egg yolk, egg whites, cream and spices.
“Be warned, it’s about a million calories,” she said with a laugh.
Another drink that certainly won’t do any favors to your waistline (but is so worth all those treadmill runs later) is Peche’s hot buttered rum, a steaming elixir of dark rum, “literally a slab of butter” and honey, bartender Larry Miller said. It hails from the days of colonial America, when the molasses imported from Jamaica would be distilled into rum and enterprising New England drinkers would combine the spirit into hot drinks such as toddies.
This holiday season, the downtown absinthe bar is also offering an eggnog using an old recipe from 1800s bartender and cocktail book author Jerry Thomas. The eggnog won’t leave you feeling full afterward, as many of them can do; plus, the addition of honey syrup is a sweet touch you’ll want to put in your own homemade eggnog.
Besides Peche, a variety of other places are serving eggnog, including the Salty Sow on Manor Road, whose Hog Nog features Crusoe spiced rum, white chocolate liqueur, brown sugar simple syrup and a dash of cinnamon.
Capture the flavors of the season
In Jennifer Costello’s home country of Canada, the gold-wrapped, orange-shaped chocolate ball known as Terry’s Chocolate Orange is a common holiday treat she would often receive on Christmas. It’s not as much of a stocking stuffer here, but Costello, co-owner of the Bonneville downtown, wanted one of the drinks on the holiday cocktail menu to recreate that sublime combination of orange and chocolate.
She did that through the Burnt Orange Old Fashioned, which features charred orange zest, bourbon infused with mint and cocoa nibs, mint syrup and orange bitters — and it tastes exactly as if Terry’s Chocolate Orange were melted and put into a glass with some bourbon, mint and ice.
“We are always wanting to incorporate a seasonal Old Fashioned,” she said, noting that although Texas winters aren’t exactly like the ones she remembers from Ottawa, where “I’d be skating on the canal, bundled up, and drinking hot chocolate,” she knows that winter drinks are still desirable in 70-degree Austin.
The Bonneville’s other holiday cocktails incorporate two seasonal liqueurs. The vodka-based Wintermint Martini’s primary flavoring star is a peppermint schnapps of a similar name, Wondermint, from Death’s Door Spirits. Easy to drink on its own, it’s a clean, minty blend of peppermint extract, bitter almond, rosewater and a spike of absinthe, and it’s what you’ll taste the most in the nearly clear cocktail, save for the bits of peppermint garnish you’ll crunch on your tongue.
And the Russian Haze, a cold drink like the others, contains Red River Texas Bourbon Creme from Carrollton’s Jem Beverage Co. The liqueur is a rich infusion of pecan and vanilla notes with a firm bourbon backbone. But it’s that Old Fashioned I kept coming back to, having always loved the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges, too.
The seasonal drink on the menu at East Austin’s LaV is similarly special for the restaurant’s managing partner and head sommelier, Vilma Mazaite, who recalls it from her days abroad in Europe, where it’s poured at street fairs during the holidays. Glühwein — mulled wine with spices — , is like a warm sangria, she said. LaV’s incorporates Chinese five-spice, peppercorns, raisins, apricots and cranberries, bartender Mark Pfohl said, unusual additions that help to make it distinct from other mulled wines out there.
Other notable holiday cocktails are those at the Four Seasons’ Lobby Lounge, where the bartenders have created ones that pay homage to the hotel’s gingerbread village theme of Candy Land, on display in the lobby. Bartender Patrick Mayes recommends Lord Licorice, a holiday tiki drink of sorts with Tennyson absinthe, Berentzen apple liqueur, Chinese five-spice syrup, lemon juice and ginger beer. But the Peanut Brittle House, containing Scotch, allspice dram and milk infused with Banana Nut Crunch cereal, is more of the seasonal cocktail you’ll want leading up to Christmas.
“The idea behind Peanut Brittle House is to take you back to those days when you’d watch ‘A Christmas Story’ in your PJs,” he said.
Bars and restaurants in this story:
207 E. 53rd St. 512-614-6683, www.drinkwellaustin.com.
Four Seasons Hotel
98 San Jacinto Blvd. 512-478-4500, www.fourseasons.com/austin.
1501 E. Seventh St. 512-391-1888, lavaustin.com.
208 W. Fourth St. 512-494-4011, www.pecheaustin.com.
1917 Manor Road. 512-391-2337, saltysow.com.
202 W. Cesar Chavez St. 512-428-4643, thebonnevilleaustin.com.