Fine dining and hot toddies aren't a typical pairing. But 2020 was no typical year.
Hot buttered rum, Irish coffees, mulled wine and other hot libations have flooded cocktail lists around the country as restaurants navigate outdoor dining in chilly weather. As coronavirus cases surge, officials across the country have scrutinized indoor dining, reducing capacity and in some areas banning it entirely. That's forcing restaurateurs to embrace outdoor options and figure out how to make eating under a tent in cold temperatures enjoyable for guests. In addition to heaters and blankets, hot cocktails are part of that equation.
"It's a survival mechanism," said Chris Stang, the chief executive officer of Zagat restaurant guides and co-founder of popular restaurant website The Infatuation.
Social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have proven uniquely devastating to the restaurant industry, a sector that's been among the hardest hit by the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 110,000 restaurants closed permanently or long-term last year, according to a study released in December by the National Restaurant Industry, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association. One executive at the association called the figure, which represented about 1 in 6 of the nation's eateries, "economic free fall" in a letter to Congress.
"Our industry, the restaurant industry, has been hit so hard," said Simon Kim, who owns the Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse Cote in New York's Flatiron district. "In the beginning it was like a deer caught in a headlight, and it actually got hit. From then on it's been a wild goose chase."
Since March, it's been a series of firsts for Cote to keep their doors open. In the spring, Kim rolled out delivery and takeout. In the summer, outdoor dining. Now, Cote is among dozens of restaurants to offer hot cocktails for the first time.
"For the first time in New York City, hot cocktails became more of a necessity," Kim said.
At Cote, Kim's beverage director Victoria James took a food-first approach and is serving up Gløgg, a traditional warm Swedish drink made with wine and holiday spices like cloves, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon sticks.
"The best pairing with steak, to me, is always wine and the base of these are wine, which is important for a cocktail," said James, who shared the drink's recipe with CBS News (see below). "Oftentimes when you have something that's too high in alcohol it can really burn the palette, and instead you want something that's a little fresher and really goes well together with that steak."
Others have taken a more unusual approach. In New York, Niche Niche, a restaurant with a rotating menu and series of chefs, offers a boozy hot chocolate with Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream.
Among the handful of hot cocktails that New York's Dante has introduced is the Blue Blazer, a 19th century whiskey-based concoction that gets its name from the blue flame created when the bartender lights the drink on fire, an essential component of the cocktail's assembly.
"There's been a lot of necessary, I guess what you would call, innovation," Stang said. "The restaurant business, chefs, restaurateurs are creative people."
The creativity hasn't been limited to New York. Atlanta's Wrecking Ball Brewpub began offering hot buttered rum, Chicago's Sportsman Club has hot toddies, and in D.C., the Truxton Inn developed two new spiked hot cider cocktails: Long John Weather and Xmas at the South Pole.
Health officials warn this winter could be a dark one. In December at the Milken Institute's Future of Health Summit, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the country is in "for some significant pain and suffering the next couple of months" before a vaccine is able to have an impact on the spread of coronavirus.
Until then, Kim said Cote and the rest of his industry is positioned to offer guests a temporary break at a time when staying positive is paramount.
"In the beginning I was in a mode of, 'Why do I have to do this? Why did this pandemic have to happen? Why do I have to actually serve customers outside?'" Kim said. "I realized that's the wrong question to ask. I realized now it's, 'How can I serve outdoor dining and the most exciting and fun way?'"
Cote's beverage staff shared their recipe for Gløgg. The key? Making sure the liquid never reaches a full boil, otherwise the alcohol will burn off.
1000 ml Beaujolais
150 ml Linie Aquavit
250 ml apple cider
2 cut oranges
2 cut lemons
6 slices ginger
6 star anise
6 green cardamom
6 cinnamon sticks
150 ml demerara sugar