Though technically still autumn, it’s now felt like winter for over a week here in Los Angeles. The days are very short and on the long cold nights it’s been dipping into the single digits. We’ve been blessed with a little bit of rain here and there and the Santa Ana Winds have been whipping up leaves and dust, and knocking down trees, power lines, and allergy sufferers. One of my favorite ways to honor the passage of time is to mostly adhere to seasonal eating and by celebrating holidays. However, whereas seasonal eating seems to be a growing trend, seasonal drinking seems to be declining, reduced to pumpkin-flavored beers and coffees and not much besides.
Old school, cold school alchoholiday drinks are mostly forgotten, it seems. An online search for winter cocktails turns up listicles churned out without thought by the worker monkeys at New York City-based clickbait factories. These invariably involve pretentious, new, mixological inventions garnished with bacon and mistletoe and never to be ordered or enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. It’s a shame, of course, because for millennia humans have perfected drinks which add a bit of warmth and cheer and aren’t served in mason jars.
Left to right: atole, bandrek, cocoa, and sassafras tisane
There are, of course, non-alcoholic drinks which people drink almost exclusively when the weather outside is frightful — drinks like atole, bandrek, cocoa, and sassafras tisane. I’ve got nothing against those, but it’s more fun when the warmth comes not just from the temperature of the drink but also from a little alcohol-aided blood vessel dilation.
Left to right: caudle, cola de mono, and tamagozake
Note: This guide doesn’t include warm alcoholic drinks consumed almost exclusively for their purported medical benefits rather than there specific seasonal associations; thus no aleberry, caudle, or tamagozake. Nor does it include Chile’s famed cola de mono, because although it’s an alcoholic beverage traditionally drunk Christmas — in the southern hemisphere that holiday falls at the beginning of summer when days are long and warm.
Amazake (甘酒) is traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice. It’s produced using the koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae), also used to produce miso, sake, and soy sauce. Its production dates back at least to the Kofun period (250-538 CE) and it’s mentioned in the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, The Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀). It’s sometimes consumed as a dessert, as well as used as a sweetening agent, baby food, dressing, or hangover cure — but is also popular as a winter warmer. Mixed with water and grated ginger, it’s widely sold at festivals, inns, teahouses, and from street vendors.
The Blue Blazer is the oldest known flaming cocktail, included in bartender Jerry Thomas’s manual, How to Mix Drinks, published in 1862. It’s made by mixing scotch and hot water, setting the mixture alight, and pouring the flaming fluid back and forth between two metal mugs. The drink is completed with the addition of sugar and lemon peel. Although flaming drinks are more often produced for dramatic flair than they are consumed for warmth (the flame is extinguished before consumption), the blue blazer is especially popular in winter.
Coquito is a coconut-based beverage popular in Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities. Recipes vary but most car for coconut milk, spiced rum (or pitorro), sweetened condensed milk, and a combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and/or vanilla. Some recipes additionally call for the inclusion of egg yolks, an innovation believed by some to have been introduced by eggnog-drinking Americans when they arrived in Puerto Rico in the 19th century.
CRÉMAS (OR CRÉMASSE)
Crémas (Crémasse) is a coconut-based beverage popular in Haiti and Haitian communities. Similar to the coquito, most recipes include coconut, sweetened condensed milk, and spiced rum — although rhum agricole (a style of rum originally distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses) is sometimes substituted for rum. Other recipes call for dark, or less often light, rum. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla are popular seasonings, as are anise and raisins. In recent years, commercially produced crémas has appeared in markets.
Eggnog (also known as milk punch or egg milk punch) is the fruitcake of winter beverages, a Christmas/Winter item which everyone seems to be familiar with and which almost no one admits to liking. Not my favorite winter warmer, I nevertheless remember drinking an unadvisable amount of Evan Williams Holiday Egg Nog at one festivity many years ago.
It’s probably more common to make one’s own eggnog than to buy a pre-mixed version and recipes vary. Nearly all call for milk or cream, sugar, whipped eggs, and some sort(s) or distilled spirits. The etymology is contested and frankly no account that compelling — but the oldest known written reference is in a poem written by Marlylander Jonathan Boucher in 1775.
Eggnog is apparently most popular in Canada and the US, but also known in the UK. The distilled beverages are often indicative of local tastes; in England, sherry and brandy are preferred; in the Northeast US, rum is traditional; in the South, bourbon is the natural choice. Some recipes call for white or Madeira wine. Various seasonings include lemon juice, coffee, nutmeg, vanilla, and others. Non-dairy recipes date back at least to 1899, when the recipe in Almeda Lambert’s Guide for Nut Cookery called for the substitution of coconut cream.
Eierpunsch (“egg punch”) is a drink common during winter time in German and Austrian markets. Similar to eggnog, it’s an egg-based beverage made with sugar, cloves, vanilla, and (usually) white or (less often) red wine. Some recipes call for the addition of tea, lemon, and/or custard. It’s also traditionally served in a mug topped with whipped cream and ginger snaps.
Feuerzangenbowle (“fire tongs punch”) is a drink known as much for its process as its final product. Basically it involves soaking sugarloaf in rum, setting it on fire, and letting the flaming drips fall into a heated pot of glühwein. As it burns, more rum is ladled onto the sugarloaf until it’s entirely caramelized and melted away. It was featured in the 1944 German comedy, Die Feuerzangenbowle.
Glühwein (“glow-wine”) is a mulled wine popular traditionally consumed in Germany, Austria, and Alsace. The oldest known description appears in the 15th century. There are all kinds of varieties of mulled wines and like most, it’s usually steeped with cinnamon, citrus, cloves, star anise, sugar, and vanilla.
I suppose that glühwein deserves its own entry amongst the winter warmers because although it’s usually prepared from red wine, it’s also sometimes made from blueberry, cherry, or white wine. Also, glühwein is essential in the production of feuerzangenbowle.
Glogg (glögg in Swedish and Icelandic, gløgg in Danish and Norwegian, and glögi in Estonian and Finnish) is a beverage made from red wine, sugar, and spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, orange, and spirits including akvavit, brandy, and vodka. Recipes vary, however, and white wine, port, Madeira, brandy, and whiskey are sometimes substituted.
It’s generally served with blanched almonds, ginger snaps, and raisins. In Sweden, it’s often served with lussebullar (or lussekatter), a type of saffron bun served at Julbord, the Christmas buffet. In Denmark it’s typically paired with pancake puffs (æbleskiver)sprinkled with powdered sugar and spread with strawberry marmalade. In Norway it’s more often served with rice pudding (riskrem).
I think the only time I’ve had glogg was when a roommate obtained a bottle of Saturnus Glogg concentrate. Unfortunately, I don’t think that we realized at the time that it was a concentrate, and drinking the viscous fluid was more an act of dare and desperation than pleasure.
HOT BUTTERED RUM
Hot buttered rum is a drink containing dark (or occasionally light or spiced) rum, butter, hot water or cider, sugar, and various spices including cinnamon, cloves, and/or nutmeg. It dates from at least the 17th century, when molasses was imported from Jamaica to New England where it was distilled into rum.
If memory serves correctly, hot buttered rum was one of the first winter warmers with which I was acquainted. I believe it was my first girlfriend, knowing of my interest in the subject, who told me that Bing Crosby orders one in the film, White Christmas (which I’ve still yet to see — even though I’m a fan of both Christmas films and Irving Berlin). Despite my trepidation about drinking a beverage with butter in it, it’s become a staple of my winter drinks menu.
The hot toddy (also hot totty and hot tottie) is a drink typically made of liquor, hot water, and honey. The word “toddy” originally comes from an Indian drink made from fermented palm sap. In it’s Western use, it dates from at least the 18th Century. Recipes vary and sometimes substitute sugar for honey, tea for water, and additionally include spices. The distilled spirits are usually brandy, rum, whiskey, or (especially in the Middle West), bourbon. It’s traditionally prescribed as both a cold and flue treatment and taken to warm the body in cold weather. Commonly added ingredients include ginger ale and lemon.
I remember the first time I heard of a hot toddy was whilst watching either Late Night with David Letterman or Late Show with David Letterman. The host kept repeating, slowly and over-and-over in his signature manner, “a hot… toddy… …hot… …toddy…,” probably alternating between the camera, Paul, and the guest, and perhaps tugging at his collar. I immediately added it to my mental list of winter warmers.
Huángjiǔ (黃酒) is a fermented drink widely consumed both cooled and warmed in China and Taiwan during the autumn and winter months. Huángjiǔ is brewed from various grains including maize, millet, rice, sorghum, or wheat with a jiuqu starter culture. In Shanghai it’s usually made from rice and wheat whereas in Dongbei, a maize-derived beverage is more common. Some huángjiǔs are aged for as many as twenty years.
Irish coffee (Irish: caife Gaelach) is a cocktail consisting of coffee, Irish whiskey, and sugar (some recipes specify brown sugar), all mixed together and served in a mug topped with thick (not whipped) cream. Various spiked coffees pre-date the proper Irish coffee, which several sources claim was standardized in the 1940s by Joe Sheridan, a chef in Foynes, County Limerick. Although popular year round, Irish coffee is understandably in greater demand during the cold months.
The existence of mulled wine dates back at least to 2nd Century Rome. As their empire expanded across Europe, so too did their customs, including heating and adding spice to wine. A recipe from 1390’s The Forme of Cury looks similar to mulled wine recipes today, calling for the addition of “cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, and grains of paradise” mixed with red wine and sugar.
My introduction to mulled wine came from an unlikely source, a lecture on architecture. In learning about Frank Lloyd Wright‘s famed Fallingwater home the professor showed us that one of the home’s features is a huge, swinging wine kettle for mulling wine over the hearth. Perhaps my favorite thing about Wright is that he took pains to create “client proof” features that he intended to resist the impulse of his clients to redecorate his thoughtfully designed homes. I immediately set out to make my own mulled wine and have done so probably every winter since, although increasingly get nothing but head scratching when I ask grocers where the mulling spices are. If only more of us grew up with giant wine kettles in our home!
Mulled wine is still popular in much of Europe and elsewhere, and local variations often reflect local tastes and available products. Various versions of mulled wine include bisschopswijn (the Netherlands), candola or vino navega’o (Chile), caribou (Quebec), forralt bor (Hungary), Глинтвейн (Russia), grzane wino (Poland), греяно вино (Bulgaria), karstvīns (Latvia), кувано вино (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia), Sıcak Şarap (Turkey), svařené víno or svařák (Czech Republic), варено вино (Macedonia), the izvar (Moldova), vin brulé (Italy), vin chaud (France), and vin fiert (Romania).
Mead (also “medd”; from Old English “medu”) is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, and sometimes fruits, spices, grains, or hops. Historically mead was widely produced and consumed in ancient Africa, Asia, and Europe. By the 5th Century, in Germanic and Scandinavian Europe, the king’s great hall was generally also the mead hall. Much of the action in the epic Beowulf takes place in a mead hall called Heorot. During the Third Age, Meduseld was the name of In Rohan’s great golden mead hall.
Mead has retained its associations with the “Dark Ages” and I suppose it’s for this reason that I first had it at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. However, that mulled mead has retained is associations with winter has had the unfortunate effect of making it rare as rain for most of the year other than at Ethiopian restaurants.
Today, the most widely available commercially produced mead in the US are probably Redstone, established in Colorado in 2000, and the older Chaucer’s Mead, founded in California in 1964 and sold with small bags of mulling spices.
Ponche crema is a cream-based liqueur popular in Trinidad and Venezuela. Recipes vary but generally include rum, milk, eggs, sugar, and a combination of seasonings including cinnamon, lemon rind, nutmeg or vanilla. A common variation also includes coffee. A commercially available ponche crema has been produced in Venezuela by Eliodoro González Palacios since 1900.
Posset (also poshote and poshotte) is a drink made of curdled milk, wine or ale, and usually spiced with anise, ginger, and sugar. From the 16th Century on, most recipes called for the addition of cream, eggs, and lemon juice. Posset was popular in Britain from the Middle Ages until the 19th Century. Traditionally posset was consumed as a remedy for the cold, flu, and as a sleep aid. A posset set presented to Queen Mary I of England by King Philip II of Spain in 1554 is on display at Hatfield House in England. Possets are mentioned in William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Kidnapped, and C.S. Lewis’s In the Silver Chair, among other works. I made it one year for Yule and it was a bit like slurping an alcoholic omelet smoothie. It was not popular with guests.
Rakiya or rakija is a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans that dates back at least to the 11th Century. Common fruit ingredients apricots, grapes, plums, and less often, apples, blackberries, cherries, figs, mulberry, peaches, pears, and quince. Other common ingredients include herbs, honey, and walnuts. In Greece it is known as Ρακί, Ρακή, or Τσικουδιά/Tsikoudia; in Albania, rakia; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ракија; Bulgaria, ракия; Croatia, rakija; the Czech Republic and Slovakia, pálenka; Hungary, pálinka; Macedonia, ракија; Montenegro, ракија; Romania, palincă or ţuică; Serbia, ракија; and in Slovenia it’s known as šnops.
Rakomelo (ρακόμελο) is a digestif produced in Crete. It’s made by combining raki or Tsipouro with honey, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and other spices. Although widely consumed as a remedy for coughs and sore throat, it’s also popular as a winter warmer.
Rüdesheimer kaffee is a relatively recent concoction, created by television chef Hans Karl Adam in 1957, but for over half a century now has been a popular winter warmer at German coffeehouses. The drink is made by mixing flambéed Asbach Uralt brandy with sugar, coffee, and topped with whipped cream, vanilla sugar, and chocolate flakes.
While high-grade sake is generally consumed cold, heated sake is popular in winter months and rainy nights (or maybe that’s just me). Sake is additionally associated with winter because before refrigeration, sake breweries operated only in the cold months. A globe of cedar leaves is hung outside the sake brewery at the beginning of sake production and the slow browning process reflects the maturation of the sake within. Many restaurants hang these globes, known as sugitama (杉玉), to indicate that they serve sake. New sake, shinshu (新酒), is generally released in late winter or early spring. A spiced sake known as o-toso (屠蘇) is consumed at New Year’s. Recipes for o-toso (or toso) usually call for apiaceae, Chinese bellflower, Chinese wild ginger root, cinnamon, ginger, Japanese pepper, rhubarb, ukera, amongst other ingredients. As children, my mother used to give my siblings and I a bit of hot sake on New Year’s although I never knew why. Perhaps she was aware of its seasonal associations. The alternative, that it was a strange coincidence, seems too unlikely, no?
Sbiten (сбитень or збитень) is a Russian honey-based drink, the oldest known mention of which occurs in print in 1128. It was popular from the Middle Ages until the 19th Century when its popularity was supplanted by coffee and tea. Sbiten was traditionally produced by mixing honey with water, fruits and spices and garnished with cinnamon sticks or mint. Sbiten can be non-alcoholic or alcoholic, the latter version calling for water to be substituted with red wine.
The Smoking Bishop was a popular winter time drink in Victorian England. Smoking Bishops are made from port combined with caramelized lemons or Seville oranges, sugar, and a combination of spices including allspice, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg or other spices. Variations include the Smoking Archbishop (made with claret), the Smoking Beadle (made with raisins), the Smoking Cardinal (made with Champagne or Rhine wine), and the Smoking Pope (made with burgundy). It’s mentioned in Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol.
The Snowball is a cocktail made by mixing equal parts of advocaat and lemonade and sometimes embellished with lime juice. Advocaat (or advocatenborrel) is a traditional Dutch beverage made from brandy, eggs, and sugar. The existence of the cocktail dates back at least to 1904 and commercially prepared versions are widely available in markets and pubs. It’s traditionally served over ice in a highball.
TOM AND JERRY
A Tom and Jerry is an egg-based cocktail introduced by British journalist Pierce Egan to publicize his 1821 book and play, Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. It’s closely related to eggnog but includes brandy and rum and, in the Middle West, is often made using commercially produced batter. The drink also appears in Damon Runyon‘s 1932 story “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” Harry Stewart‘s (as Yogi Yorgesson) 1949 song “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” the 1940 film Beyond Tomorrow, the 1941 film The Great Mr. Nobody, and the 1960 film, The Apartment.
Most of Brazil lies south of the equator which means winter arrives in June and Brazilians mark the arrival of winter with the Festa Junina. A fairly standard mulled wine, known as vinho quente (which it is also known as in Portugal), is consumed especially in the South, where vineyards are common and many Brazilians are of European descent. In the southeast and northeast, where wine is less common, Brazilians substitute rum or Cachaça in a mulled drink known as Quentão, which roughly translates to “hick.”
Wassail is a mulled cider popularly drunk in the Middle Ages to ensure a bountiful cider apple harvest the following year. It’s name is derived from the Old English “was hál,” related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting “wes þú hál,” meaning “be you healthy.” Wassail’s predecessor, the lambswool, was made from mulled mead and roasted crab apples and consumed on Lammas (“lambswool” is likely a corruption of “la mas ubal”). Over time, wassail developed into a mulled cider flavored with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar, topped with slices of toast and drunk from a communal bowl. Modern recipes often include apples, brandy, eggs, fruit juice, mulled ale, oranges, sherry, or wine.
In southwest and southeast England, wassailing involved ensuring the health of trees on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Celebrants elected a Wassail King and Queen (or a young boy called a “Tom Tit”) to lead a procession from cider orchard to cider orchard. At each orchard, the royals or Master Tit would affix the soaked pieces of toast to the trees’ branches as offerings to the Apple Tree Man, a tree spirit. Other drunken revelers sang and fired guns into the branches to frighten off evil spirits. Wassail is mentioned in the carols “Here We Come A-wassailing” and “Gloucestershire Wassail” as well as Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” and Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Uffington Wassail.”
Zabaione (also zabajone, or zabaglione) is a custard-like beverage (or beverage-like custard) made from egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine (usually Moscato d’Asti or Marsala wine). Some recipes call for the addition of cognac. Zabaione is also served both as a beverage and, since the 1960s, a desert. In France it’s known as sabayon. It’s also popular as a desert or ice cream flavor in Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay, where it’s usually known as either sambayón or sabajón.
So cheers to winter! Whatever anyone tells you, the “reason for the season” is the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis away from the sun. Stay warm but also stay safe. As always, additions and corrections are encouraged.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.