As the weather cools and outdoor dining continues, restaurants are filling their drink menus with warm, comforting cocktails.

By Regan Stephens
October 20, 2020
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Credit: Amanda Hoey

Outside of Ernesto’s, 15 electric heaters warm sidewalk tents where, underneath, diners feast on chicken croquetas and paper-thin slices of Cinco Jotas Iberico ham, their portable glow welcoming those who may not be comfortable dining inside a restaurant just yet.

Chef Ryan Bartlow’s Basque-inspired spot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side opened in the beginning of 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants to change everything or close permanently. It’s one of the countless restaurants in New York City and across the country that plan to continue outdoor dining, even as the days get shorter and colder. (Fortunately for New Yorkers, the city’s recently-permanent Open Restaurants program allows for heaters and enclosures on the sidewalk.)

These new winter-fied sidewalk restaurants recall the year-round café culture of places like Denmark and Norway, where hygge—or a warm, cozy vibe—is promoted with wool blankets, heaters, and, increasingly, a menu full of hot, boozy drinks.

For some restaurants, hot drinks are a brand new addition. Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village is serving a classic mulled wine for the first time since it opened in 1997. For others, the warm cocktail offerings are getting a little more robust and creative—to help keep chilly outdoor dining comfortable and cozy.

To go along with Ernesto’s Spanish menu, bar director Sarah Morrissey recently added Red Hot Sangria, a mix of red wine, port, and amaro steeped with whole spices, and Hot Buttered Sherry, made with autumn compound butter, spun with brown sugar, honey, vanilla bean, and spices.

“It’s the perfect hot fall cocktail—a blend of fresh apple cider, bitter amaro, and dry nutty sherry,” Morrissey says. “When you heat all the ingredients up with the autumn butter, it melds all the flavors together and brings in a silky, creamy texture. COVID and outdoor dining was a huge influence on hot drinks—keeping people warm is important, and keeping their bellies warm with booze is equally important.”

Chris Jaime, lead bartender at Otis in Bushwick, Brooklyn, notes that while hot drinks are always a staple of New York winter dining, the restaurant plans to add more to its menu this year to accompany outdoor dining, including one called the Union Square Holiday Market.

Credit: Courtesy of Otis

Made with homemade Granny Smith apple cider mixed with cinnamon, allspice, Aquavit and Velvet Falernum, the drink, Jaime says, “will definitely bring solace to those dining at Otis on a chilly night this season.”

In Queens, New York, overlooking the runways of JFK airport, the glamorous mid-century modern TWA Hotel is hosting its second annual Runway Chalet. The rooftop pool bar transforms into an Alpine-themed lodge, with après ski (or pre-boarding) drinks like the Altitude Adjustment (spiced rum and hot apple cider) to pair with an grilled cheese and tomato soup. 

In Washington, D.C., the team behind Swiss restaurant Stable recently opened outdoor dining outpost Little Stable, with a focus on fondue and hot cocktails. Swiss military blankets and twinkling lights set the stage for sipping warm drinks and sampling traditional cheese fondue.

Co-owner and general manager/beverage director Silvan Kraemer is partial to Kafi Schnapps, made with Nescafe, sugar, and a choice of plum, pear, or kernobst (stone fruit) eau de vie. Kraemer, who grew up in Switzerland, says the country has a long tradition of mixing up batches of hot cocktails, stemming from enduring (and thriving through) its snowy mountain winters.

“Whenever we go hiking or skiing, we bring hot cocktails to warm us up when we are spending time outdoors,” he says. “At its core, it's about something that brings comfort during the cold times.”

On the electric heater-dotted patio at chef José Andrés’ eastern Mediterranean-focused Zaytinya, also in D.C., besides Greek Ouzo and Lebanese Arak, guests can try the Sideritis cocktail. Translating to “he who is made of iron,” the upgrade to a traditional hot toddy includes Mount Olympus tea, Greek brandy, lemon, spices, and Attiki honey.

Jess Weinstein, who creates cocktails for Maydan and Compass Rose, has created a “night tea” at the former. Served on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, the tea cocktail program includes drinks like the Sultana, made with hot Frida Licious tea, tropical spices, cinnamon, hibiscus, cognac,  and allspice. At Hi-Lawn, the expansive new bar and green space atop Union Market, it’s a simple hot apple cider warming hands and filling Instagram feeds.

Credit: Courtesy of Maydan

Indoor dining in Philadelphia has recently increased to 50 percent capacity, but plenty of diners are still opting to sit outside instead. Modern American restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday has always served some of the city’s best cocktails, and now, their haute cuisine is offered at two-tops and picnic tables, along with head bartender Paul MacDonald’s new spin on a centuries-old cold weather staple. FSS Mulled Wine is a hot cauldron of red wine, Haitian Boukman’s rum, and MacDonald’s homemade molasses syrup. It's garnished with orange and lemon slices and, in a testament to MacDonald’s infinite precision, exactly three whole coffee beans. 

In the summer months, the rooftop Devereaux at the Viceroy Chicago offers refreshing cocktails with a view of Lake Michigan, but to combat the increasingly chilly temps, bartender and beverage expert Raul Jaimes added the Savoir Faire, made with Claqué Pepin Calvados, Green Chartreuse, hot cider, and star anise-, cinnamon-, and tarragon-spiced butter.

“It's amazing how a hot drink can soothe chills and relax tensions,” he says. “In these times we look for comfort and a moment to relax, shaking off the frigid world.”