Warm specialty drinks heat up bar business

From the swank cocktail emporium to the kickass country bar, classic warm drinks like hot buttered rum, hot toddies and spiked coffee are entering the seasonal spotlight. While some operators hew to traditional formulas, the innovative add distinctive touches, like cardamom-scented bitters, pumpkin-infused rum or a spice-and-sugar coating on the glass rim.

Nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of steamy specialties, operators agreed.

“They are adult versions of something you may remember fondly from childhood,” said Kenneth McClure, vice president and group general manager of Hospitality Holdings, which has six high-end cocktail lounges and a bistro-wine bar in New York City. “Every kid enjoys hot chocolate and marshmallows.”

The new signature hot chocolate served at Bookmarks, Hospitality Holdings’ upscale rooftop lounge at The Library Hotel in Manhattan, combines rich chocolate ganache with French orange liqueur and steamed milk, and is served in a glass rimmed with orange-scented sugar.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte, another new creation at Bookmarks, is made with hot caffe latte, spiced rum and Irish cream liqueur, plus pumpkin pie spice, sugar and a topping of spice-dusted whipped cream. Warm drinks like those, regularly priced at $13.75, are sold at half price from 9 p.m. to midnight nightly to stimulate late-evening business.

“Couples especially seem to respond well to these drinks,” McClure said. “They enjoy coming up to the 14th floor rooftop lounge to have a nice warm drink in front of the fireplace.”

When temperatures dip in Chicago, patrons of Shaw’s Crab House, part of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group based there, call for hot buttered rum. Shaw’s version features aged Puerto Rican rum mixed with a housemade batter of butter, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice.

Joshua Tilden, Shaw’s beverage manager, said he sees warm libations rising in prominence along with brown spirits in general, driven by the distinctive and flavorful drinks that cocktail-centric bars mix these days.

“That seems to be where the trend is going,” Tilden said. “People are getting away from the Lemon Drops and Cosmos.”


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Apart from the sweet and soothing warm drinks, there is also a market for variations that excite the palate. An example is Boots ’n’ Butter, a warm specialty of The Hawthorne, a new craft cocktail bar in Boston. Created by owner and cocktail guru Jackson Cannon, it teams oak-aged Jamaican-style rum with cardamom-flavored bitters, butter, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg.

“It is an interpretation of hot buttered rum in a sense, although we approached it more as a bittered toddy and introduced butter to take the texture further,” said Cannon, who is known for his lauded cocktail program at Eastern Standard, an American brasserie and The Hawthorne’s nearby older sibling. The bitters, along with hints of ginger and gentian, a bitter herb, lend the drink a racy character, he said.

At Eastern Standard, the Palma Café is one of Cannon’s distinctive warm offerings. Billed “for the bitter coffee drinker” on the drink menu, it is graced with an Italian liqueur with a bitter, almost medicinal taste, plus brandy, date-infused agave nectar and unsweetened cream. Cannon allowed that the liqueur makes this cocktail an acquired taste. “But for people who know and like that flavor, this is right up their alley,” he said.

At The Southern in Chicago, signature warm drinks embody the personality of an establishment that touts “kickass bar and comfort food.” A case in point is Hot Bubba, a variant of hot buttered rum that invites the guest to “pick your poison,” either rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey-honey liqueur or a house-infused pumpkin rum made by soaking roasted pumpkin in spiced rum.

The house-infused spirit also stars in a simple coffee combo called Perky Pumpkin. “We brew some great coffee, add the pumpkin rum and top it with house-made pumpkin-rum whipped cream,” said general manager Evan Traub. “So you’re just smacked in the face with flavor.”