Chris Garcia has measured, poured, fired up, and served his fair share of Spanish coffees. The bar manager at Howe’s Bayou in Ferndale knows, after nearly 23 years, that after that first crackle of blue flame appears behind the bar and patrons start to smell the deeply rich coffee and the caramelized sugar on the rim, a chain reaction will begin and he’ll have his hands full for the next half-hour, as more orders roll in.
During the winter months, Garcia says, “We’re getting more people looking for the kinds of drinks that knock the cold out of your bones.”
Spanish coffee has been on the drink menu at Howe’s for decades, and the evergreen popularity of the drink doesn’t show any signs of waning, especially in the cold weather. Hot cocktails have a long history in northern European countries and are especially suited to dark and dreary Midwestern winters. For many Detroit bartenders, crafting a well-balanced, invigorating hot drink is a way to showcase creativity and hospitality this time of year.
At Henrietta Haus in Hamtramck, Amy Duncan takes the concept of hot coffee and alcohol one step further by adding butter. Hot buttered rum is a colonial American classic, originating in New England in the 18th century.
It’s a perfect fit for cold winter nights, Duncan says. “A hot drink sounds good on the inside and out. Who doesn’t love a hot buttered rum?”
Duncan has also perfected a few variations. Her hot buttered coffee grog uses house-roasted coffee and creamy, melted butter for a wake-up and a warm-up. The inspiration for her hot buttered amaretto sour came from a vintage cookbook recipe for hot buttered lemonade. Duncan kicked that up a notch by using the almond-based liqueur amaretto, bourbon, hot water, and lemon juice, with a bit of simple syrup and a pat of hot butter to spread emulsifying richness throughout the drink.
She’s working this year on a ginger-infused bourbon for true hot toddies. “I would always make a ginger-lemon tea when I was sick or just wanted a warm-up,” she says. “This is a version of that warming spicy ginger.”
Hot toddies, Spanish coffee, and other warm boozy beverages have been popular winter warmers for centuries. Claims of the curative properties of hot drinks as remedies for the cold and flu have largely been dismissed as old wives’ tales — until recently. In fact, several studies have shown that the spices in a hot toddy help stimulate mucus production and clear up congestion, helping to soothe a sore throat. The lemon and honey in a hot toddy also hydrate and help with congestion and scratchy throats. Doctors do warn, though, that the alcohol dehydrates the body, so it’s best to be light-handed with the hard stuff.
Almost any drink can be modified for winter warming. At The Royce Detroit wine bar downtown, the Tempranillo-based mulled wine melds baking spices, brown sugar, citrus, rum, and red wine. Heating the drink provides more than just comfort: It blends the disparate ingredients into a harmonious beverage that is more than the sum of its parts.
Says Kat McCormack, wine education and marketing manager at The Royce: “Balance is key. Over-spicing it can make it too tannic, and under-spicing it can make the booze too strong. So it’s about finding that balance … and then allowing the wine and the liquor to showcase as well.”
In the winter months, when it can seem like the sun hibernates for ages, warm drinks balance out the frigid air. Maybe those old Swiss mountain monks with their St. Bernards toting mini-kegs of hot brandy had the right idea. Hot alcohol might not be a cure-all, but it sure is reassuring.
McCormack likes to gaze out the two-plus-story windows at The Royce into a Woodward Avenue snowstorm and sip a hot drink. “There’s just something so comforting about holding that glass mug warming your fingers and looking at the snow — it goes down easy.”
This story is from the February 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.