Mixing the Sujeonggwa at Yusho. See more photos of all the hot cocktails. (Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
Sure as the unpacking of long underwear and electric blankets, warm cocktails are a perennial winter survival mechanism. But because they return to bar and restaurant menus each year, the standard drinks can get a bit, well, repetitive. This season, bartenders are experimenting with new takes on old classics such as buttered rum, hot toddies, tea cocktails and hot chocolate. "When you chill a cocktail, you depress its flavors," said Sable Kitchen & Bar's head bartender, Mike Ryan. "When you heat it, you accentuate everything." That gives bars even more reason to play with spirits and special ingredients, from cherries to Chinese five-spice. "When people come in looking for a hot toddy, they want that sense of comfort and some sense of medication," Ryan said. Luckily, these new takes on hot standards are no bitter pill to swallow.
5-Spice Hot Buttered Rum ($10) at Watershed
601 N. State St. 312-266-4932
Watershed's semi-hidden location below Pops for Champagne is full of intimate nooks and plush booths, where three warm cocktails and flickering candlelight help thaw the winter freeze. Wrap chilly fingers around the hot buttered rum, a classic winter indulgence that benefits from some Eastern flair in the form of Chinese five-spice powder. "Five-spice has a familiarity of the seasonal spices, but with its own distinctive aromatics," said partner and beverage director W. Craig Cooper. The familiarity comes from the cinnamon and clove flavors, while star anise, fennel seed and Szechuan peppercorns add complexity. Those spices are folded into the batter—a mix of butter and brown sugar—then topped with hot water and amber rum from New Holland (yes, that New Holland, which distills spirits in addition to brewing beer). "With craft cocktails, one of the things we wanted to get past at Watershed was drinks taking a long time to make," Cooper said. That means buttery relief from the cold should be in your hands in no time.
Sujeonggwa ($8) at Yusho
2853 N. Kedzie Ave. 773-904-8558
A hot toddy—basically any concoction of liquor, a sweetener, an acid (such as citrus) and hot water or tea—generally is familiar cold-weather territory. The name of Yusho's hot cocktail (pronounced soo-jon-wah) should be the first tip-off that this isn't a traditional toddy. After trying the Korean punch courtesy of one of Yusho's managers who had spent time in Korea, beverage director Alex Bachman set out to mix his own batch. It's a loose interpretation, since the original recipe calls for roughly a whole stick of cinnamon per cup. "It was like drinking Red Hots," Bachman said of why he dialed down the cinnamon for Yusho's version. Traditional sujeonggwa is tea-based, but Yusho's cocktail doesn't actually contain any tea leaves. Instead, he steeps cinnamon, ginger and cherries until the liquid is highly concentrated. "It's not going to work with just any spirit," Bachman said, which is why he chose Ransom's Whippersnapper, a category-defying, relatively young whiskey that avoids overwhelming the drink with wood flavors. Not only does the cocktail pack warming powers, but it pairs especially well with Yusho's Asian street food-inspired small plates.
Cindy's Hot Chocolate ($13) at Sepia
123 N. Jefferson St. 312-441-1920
"Who doesn't love hot chocolate?" That's how head bartender Josh Pearson explains the decision to add the drink—named for the restaurant's pastry chef, Cindy Schuman, who had a hand in selecting the chocolate—to Sepia's menu this winter. He adds some maturity courtesy of Black Bottle scotch and a limited-edition spirit from Lake Bluff, Ill.'s North Shore Distillery, called Silver Lining. "The scotch is a little smoky and adds another layer to the chocolate," Pearson said. "The Silver Lining is a krauter, a European-style herbal spiced liqueur with a big coffee, nutmeg and cinnamon taste." Because no hot chocolate would be complete without whipped cream, Pearson hand-whips a Cointreau-laced cream to top it off. And while the cold weather may stick around, there's no guarantee that Sepia's hot chocolate will—once the limited supply of Silver Lining bottles is gone, so is Cindy's Hot Chocolate.
Terrasueno ($10) at Belly Q
1400 W. Randolph St. 312-563-1010
It's hard to image the final flavor of a drink made with caramel-infused Pu-erh tea, espresso, spiced syrup and shochu (a vodka-like Japanese spirit that, in this case, is distilled from sweet potato). And that's exactly how Belly Q's beverage manager Peter Vestinos intended it. "It's a surprise," he said. "I think the flavor is a really different experience than what people thought it would be based on reading the ingredients." This complex, spiced sipper arrives in a teapot, which allows the earthy and slightly sweet taste of the cave-aged Pu-erh to develop. Because it's tea-based, the Terrasueno also is lighter than most warm cocktails, and it aids with digestion—a perfect cure for a too-full stomach.
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