Today’s vibrant cocktail culture has given rise to gallons of inventive icy drinks, but for the most part, hot alcoholic beverages have lagged behind in creativity. Now some restaurants and bars are going beyond Irish coffee, attracting patrons with warm boozy drinks that show a mixologist’s touch.
A fourth-course opportunity
Hot drinks give restaurants an extra chance to sell at the end of the meal, says Gerald Pulsinelli, VP of wine and spirits for 37-unit Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a Charlotte, N.C.-based casual-dining chain. “We like to say that our hot drinks are really dessert in a glass,” he says. “If a guest is not interested in our Creme Brulee Cheesecake, maybe they would go for a last cocktail, especially one with a dessert feel to it.” That way, the operator still garners that additional sale, boosting the check by $5 or more.
The dessert-like hot drinks at Firebirds (all $8) include Fired Up Coffee spiked with tiramisu-flavor and vanilla-citrus liqueurs and agave nectar. It’s topped with whipped cream and drizzled with hot chocolate sauce, like a sundae. Also on fall’s after-dinner list is Flannel Pajamas, coffee laced with butterscotch schnapps and chocolate liqueur, and a Hazelnut-Vanilla Java cocktail (coffee blended with hazelnut liqueur and vanilla vodka).
After dinner at Bottlefork Bar and Kitchen in Chicago, guests are handed a dessert menu with a section titled Dessert in a Glass. Among the offerings is a spicy hot Coca Azteca, made with ancho chili liqueur, arbol chilies, crème de cacao and steamed milk. “It’s an upgrade on hot chocolate,” says mixologist Adam Kamin.
Hot on the classics
“We have had great success with variations on drinks like hot buttered rum and Irish coffee,” says Brandon Wise, beverage director for Sage Restaurant Group, a Denver-based operator with 10 restaurants. Among the additions to cocktail menus this fall is the Café Urbano at Urban Farmer (with locations in Cleveland and Portland, Ore.). Wise describes the drink as a riff on Irish coffee but using pour-over coffee, brewed with beans from a local roaster, and solera rum rather than Irish whiskey. The local theme also extends to the liqueur used—an amaro-and-walnut nocino the chef makes from Oregon-grown walnuts.
Firing up profits
Since they employ relatively low-cost ingredients, such as coffee, milk or nonalcoholic cider, hot drinks can have better margins—especially compared to stirred cocktails that are all alcohol, says Kamin. At Bottlefork, the Dessert in a Glass drinks are priced at $14 each, same as the noncoffee cocktails.
The philosophy at Sage’s restaurants is to price hot drinks more “agreeably,” says Wise, because it is the proverbial last taste customers will remember. Urban Farmer’s hot-drink prices are $10, compared to $11 to $13 for most cocktails. “We’ll take a hit on the hot drinks, if it gives our guests a warm feeling on their way out—a value experience.”