Cocktail menus are influenced by the changing seasons, as mixologists understand that consumers crave different flavors and ingredients depending on the weather outside. For summer, it’s all about serving light and refreshing drinks to enjoy in the sun. For winter, the possibilities get a bit more creative—and this year, mixologists are excited to get back to the darker and richer side of the cocktail spectrum.
“I end up using more of my favorite spirits during the winter,” says Colin Carroll, bar manager at Trifecta Tavern & Bakery in Portland, Oregon, referring to dark, aged spirits. “I go really light and simple in the warmer months, but winter calls for richer, spicier cocktails.”
Lauren Vigdor, beverage director at River Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, also favors brown spirits for cocktails in the winter. She says that she enjoys serving drinks that create a warm atmosphere for guests. “Bar culture is first and foremost about hospitality, and it’s easy to be hospitable when it’s cold outside,” she says. “I love welcoming people into a warm and cozy space and offering them a hot drink or a spirit-forward cocktail.”
The first spirit on most mixologists’ and consumers’ minds as the temperature cools down is whisk(e)y. For many years, Bourbon has been the star of the category, but mixologists note that rye whiskey is now taking the lead. Trifecta’s Carroll notes that rye whiskey is “insanely popular right now,” whereas a few years ago Bourbon was the go-to spirit for many mixologists and consumers. The Lion’s Tail ($12) at Trifecta blends George Dickel rye whiskey, house-made allspice dram, fresh lime juice, Demerara simple syrup and Angostura bitters, while the Smoked Marrow Vieux Carré ($14) comprises smoked bone marrow–infused George Dickel rye, Maison Rouge V.S. Cognac, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, and Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters.
While whiskies—especially American variants—remain popular with guests, mixologists are also finding inspiration in other dark spirits, from brandies to fortified wines. J.P. Fetherston, head bartender at Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., notes that brandy is his focus this winter, particularly Armagnac and brandy de Jerez.
Hot drinks are also prevalent on cocktail menus this winter and use a wide range of base spirits as mixologists branch out from classic warm drinks to more creative and unique offerings. “We’re seeing a move away from the more typical wintry cocktail templates like toddies and hot ciders,” notes Fetherston. “Consumers instinctively want something more satisfying—and perhaps even filling—when it gets colder.” Dairy products add instant richness to a cocktail. At River Bar, the Chess School ($11) features Old Monk rum, a house-made chipotle hot chocolate mix, condensed milk, hot water and Montenegro amaro–infused whipped cream.
Creating cocktails for any given season involves capturing the flavors and ingredients most associated with that time of year. In the warmer months, there’s a vast array of fresh produce available to choose from, but in the winter this bounty dwindles, so many mixologists reach for ingredients with longer shelf lives that still evoke seasonal flavors and aromas. Such spices as cardamom, nutmeg and allspice are widely used, along with botanical ingredients like honey, sage and rosemary.
“Winter is when we like to raid the pantry and incorporate a variety of savory spices and vegetables into our cocktail menu,” says River Bar’s Vigdor. The Aurora ($11), created by bartender William Warner, comprises chai–infused New Amsterdam gin, Cocchi Americano, house-made kaffir lime cordial and Regans’ No. 6 orange bitters; and the Paisley Park ($10), developed by bartender Stephen Konrads, features Old Monk rum, house-made hojicha tea syrup, Nux Alpina walnut liqueur, and fresh lemon and beet juices.
From stirred and spirit-forward to warm, creamy and aromatic, this year’s winter cocktails are all about big flavors meant to be savored.