Some people will judge a bar by its dry martini. Others by its margarita, Manhattan or sangria. My litmus test is the Irish coffee.
Perhaps the most-ordered hot cocktail north of the equator, it's about as fine a winter pick-me-up as a Canadian could hope for. Problem is, almost nobody makes a proper one.
I saw another desecration the other day, presented to a woman across from me in a bar. I could tell through the clear-glass mug that the thing was a monotonous light brown, with a poorly defined ridge of cream. It was a tip-off that the barkeep had pulled the common phony ploy of sousing coffee with Bailey's Irish Cream. I like Bailey's - on the rocks. But this common abomination is to Irish coffee what freeze-dried is to espresso.
Hot drinks in general are the big laggards in the cocktail revival of the past 15 years. Ambitious bartenders these days like to think of themselves as "beverage chefs" yet they rarely, if ever, can make creative use of a stove or a kettle, two critical tools in the mixologist's arsenal.
"Hot drinks, unfortunately, don't get a lot of respect," says Justin Taylor, bartender at Yew, the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver.Genuine Irish coffee takes a wee bit of effort, though not much. From the side it should resemble a pint of Guinness, all dark and brooding on the bottom, with a creamy-white head on top.
Pour 1-1/2 ounces of Irish whisky into a heat-resistant glass goblet. Add a teaspoon or two of brown sugar. Pour in three to four ounces of good black coffee and stir to dissolve the sugar. Gently whip about an ounce of cold, 35-per-cent cream until it froths up and develops a slightly airy consistency. (It's easier to whip several ounces at a time for several drinks.) Then slowly pour the cream over the back of a spoon so that it floats on the coffee. (You can view the technique on my accompanying video at Globeandmail.com/life.)
Do not stir an Irish coffee. The point is to drink it through the cold whipped cream. The cream refreshes your top lip and the roof of your mouth, and just as you notice that it hasn't been sweetened to resemble a dessert, the coffee floods your mouth with a little bit of sweetness and a whole lot of warmth. It's like lava flowing down the side of a snow-capped volcano.
Mr. Taylor says hot cocktails are rarely made properly, and "very few places make anything other than B52s, Spanish or Monte Cristo coffees."
I have never understood the point of Spanish coffee, made with coffee-flavoured Kahlua, which distorts and overstates rather than complementing the natural coffee base of the drink.
As for the B52, a caffeinated riff on the let's-get-drunk-and-puke shooter made with Kahlua, Bailey's and Grand Marnier, it sounds like a flavour profile for people too young to be drinking coffee.
A new addition to Mr. Taylor's hottie repertoire is his Olympic Torch cocktail.
In keeping with Yew's space-age ski-lodge design, but totally impractical for making at home, the drink involves dry ice (the fog-producing solid carbon dioxide), fresh ginger, vanilla sugar syrup, spiced rum and lemon juice.
More accessible is his Mont Tremblant Warmer, named after a Quebec ski hill as a tribute to the cocktail's key ingredient, maple syrup.
Warm two ounces fresh espresso, 1-1/2 ounces cognac, one ounce maple syrup and three ounces whole milk to the point where the ingredients begin to steam, but not boil, then pour into a coffee mug. Top the drink off with a dollop or two of 35-per-cent cream whipped with vanilla sugar, cognac, a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of ground clove.
(The restaurant's version is a tad more complicated. I'm adapting for simplicity's sake.)
Across the country at the real Tremblant ski resort, hot butterscotch martinis are among the more popular high-temperature offerings at the Fairmont Tremblant, according to Maude Rouleau-Laprise, the hotel's restaurant team leader and a former bartender.
A blend of butterscotch liqueur, Starbucks coffee liqueur and milk, it's mixed thoroughly, then heated and served in heat-resistant glasses.
At the Fairmont, skiers no longer have to wait until the end of the day to enjoy a heartwarming beverage; the new Nansen Lounge, open since June, lets skiers swoosh in for a drink or lunch without doffing their Rossignols. Why wait for après-ski when you can have pendant-ski?
Speaking of boozy midday pick-me-ups, Fifty Two 80 Bistro at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler has put a Canadian stamp on a classic Chilean afternoon-coffee drink.
The Cafe Con Piernas (or "coffee with legs") mixes Calvados, the French apple brandy, with crème de cacao, Grand Marnier and French-press coffee. Head bartender Uriah Conti then rims the mug with maple syrup and a dusting of cocoa, capping it all off with whipped cream.
Coffee will likely always be the top vehicle for hot cocktails, but tea appears to be undergoing a revival. It's ironic, too, given that the popular Irish coffee was created as an alternative to the classic Irish drink of whisky and tea.
(Joe Sheridan, bartender at Shannon Airport after the Second World War, was pandering to a bunch of stranded, Newfoundland-bound Americans.)
I'm especially intrigued by a creation by Colin Turner, bar manager at CinCin Ristorante + Bar in Vancouver.
He mixes Amarone grappa with Tuaca Italian liqueur (which is infused with fruit and spices), then adds a quarter-ounce of lemon juice and four to five ounces of Earl Grey tea. The drink is built in an old-school brandy snifter as the tea is steeping. Last to go in are the tea and a slice of lemon zest, squeezed over the drink to release its oil. For a sweeter profile, add honey. A play on the Italian grappa-and-espresso drink called caffe corretto, it's called The Cheque, Please in honour of its digestif properties.
One of the most popular tea-based cocktails is the deceptively named blueberry tea, which contains zero blueberries or blueberry essence of any kind.
Blend one ounce of amaretto with one ounce of Grand Marnier in a brandy snifter and add orange pekoe to taste. Believe it or not, the combination tastes like blueberry-infused tea.
If you're looking for warmth in an alcoholic beverage but want to skip caffeine, there's always the toddy - NeoCitran with alcohol in place of the pharmaceuticals.
Add 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of any dry brown spirit (rum, whisky or brandy; my favourite is Scotch) to a mug, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Spear the rind of the squeezed wedge with a couple of cloves and drop it into the mug. Add a teaspoon of honey or icing sugar and top up with hot water. Add two or three dashes of Angostura bitters if you like.
It's as simple as boiling water. Now, if only more bartenders could learn to boil water.