To Sip and Savor
When winter hits its most bitter months, the question of where to go to get the hottest cocktails around takes on a whole new meaning for Hillites heading out of work in search of a drink or three.
On Capitol Hill, and in every bar whose owner has had to shovel snow off the front walk in the past few weeks, the season of the warm drink is in full swing.
For the uninitiated, the warm drink is a different species of bar offering created to serve a different purpose. It’s not flashy like a frozen margarita or chic like a chilled martini. A hot cocktail isn’t the drink you take out on the dance floor with you or the beverage you order two at a time to save a second trip to the bar.
Hot drinks are a quieter sort of drink. They are meant to be enjoyed, not merely guzzled. Hot drinks are held with both hands and sipped, perhaps even curled up with as one looks longingly out at frozen patio furniture that won’t be used again until skirts and linen suits reappear in Congressional office buildings.
And while you can pretty much get a hot toddy — sugar, whiskey and hot water garnished with a lemon slice — at any Hill watering hole, there are a few local establishments that offer some unique warm drink selections.
Perhaps the most well-known, and most popular, warm drink is Irish coffee. Traditional Irish coffee, which caught on around the globe in the years following World War II, includes Jameson whiskey as the key ingredient. And those looking for something traditionally Irish on the Hill are eventually going to end up at the Dubliner (520 North Capitol St. NW). As owner Daniel Coleman explained, “Irish beverages are best consumed in a traditional Irish environment, and the Dubliner could as easily occupy a corner of O’Connell Street in Ireland as Capitol Hill.”
A Dubliner Irish coffee starts with a spoonful of brown sugar, adds a healthy shot of Jameson, mixes in hot coffee and finishes with a whipped cream topping. This sugary sweet creation sells for $6 and is a hit among both regulars and chilly first-timers.
“We go through a lot of Jameson in the winter months,” explained one manager.
Getting beyond Jameson, the Dubliner also offers a few variations on the traditional Irish beverage. The Nutty Irishman is a tasty combination of Frangelico, coffee and whipped cream, while the Peppermint Paddy mixes Baileys Irish cream, peppermint schnapps, coffee and whipped cream.
For a different take on liquor and coffee, head over to Jaleo (480 Seventh St. NW) in Penn Quarter for a Spanish version of the drink. Jaleo’s “Spanish coffee” selections include Café Jaleo, a mixture of coffee, brandy and orange liqueur that sells for $6, and Carajillo, espresso flavored with Spanish brandy, which sells for $4.
Another European tradition that has thankfully made its way to America is German gl hwein, “or glow wine.” This sweet German mulled wine concoction is the hot drink specialty of the house at Cafe Berlin (322 Massachusetts Ave. NE). Cafe Berlin serves Nurnberger Markt Gluhwen, which is the traditional drink at the famous Christkindl’s Market in the Bavarian city of Nurenberg. It sells for $7 a glass.
Ute Green, a waitress who has worked at Cafe Berlin since 1985, said she always makes sure to offer gluhwein to customers who stop in on a cold day, “and when people take it they do like it. The ones that don’t get it, they don’t know what they’re missing.”
On special occasions, Green explained, Cafe Berlin will make its own homemade gluhwein by mixing cloves, lemon, orange, red wine and cinnamon sticks.
On a chilly afternoon last week, two of Green’s customers, upon hearing she had gluhwein behind the bar, immediately ordered a piping glass each.
“A cold beer just isn’t what I want on a day like today. We’ll go for the gluhwein,” said one of the patrons.
And was this his first time ordering the traditional German beverage?
“No, there’s a small cadre of us, mostly in the blue states, who know about gluhwein,” he explained in customary Hill political terms.
And while all these hot drinks are sweet, the sweetest of them all can be found just down Pennsylvania Avenue at Brasserie Les Halles (1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). This French restaurant, better known for its steaks and frites, also offers the perfect blend of warm dessert and tasty nightcap.
Les Halles’ freshly made hot chocolate — a heavenly mixture of melted Ecuadorean chocolate, 100 percent cocoa powder and whipped cream that sells by itself for $5.75 — can be ordered with any mixture of dessert liquor including Baileys, Kahlua and Frangelico. The steaming concoction comes garnished with chunks of fresh brownies, which are perfect for dipping.
As bartender Austin Holmes put it, “It ain’t Swiss Miss.”
Of course if the weather gets too bad to even make it out to bars, Swiss Miss and a bottle of sweet liquor might be the perfect way to experiment with homemade hot cocktails while keeping warm at the same time.
So instead of sitting at home and wishing the winter months away, try embracing the new drinking opportunities the cold weather offers.
Just be prepared to take a pass when someone offers you a hot cup of coffee at work the next morning.
Jennifer Lash contributed to this report.