The Nostalgia of Snowy Days and Spiked Hot Chocolate
What spirits go best with chocolate in winter?
If you believe the early weather reports, our first snow storm of the year will hit the northeast this weekend. I’m actually hoping for at least one chilly, snowed-in weekend in 2024. Last year, when it was so warm that we got less than an inch of snow, there was almost no opportunity to make one of my favorite wintertime cocktails: spiked hot chocolate.
I’ve been feeling nostalgic about winters and hot chocolate lately. As I was moving old boxes over the past few months, I came across a hand-drawn spreadsheet, created by my oldest son when he was 12 or 13—at the time, he wrote a local food review column for his middle-school newspaper. (A memorable piece was a rant about the inauthentic churros served at school). The spreadsheet showed his ratings of various places that served hot chocolate in our small town, categorized by thickness, topping, price, “chocolate-y goodness,” and his observations on atmosphere and service.
Hot chocolate had become something of an obsession in our house. A couple of winters before that, he and I had traveled to Brussels, along with his younger brother, where we spent a few days gorging on frites, mussels, and of course chocolate. During that cold trip, all of us had a sort of hot chocolate epiphany. We’d been trying ever since to create our own perfect version at home. So he brought quite the critical eye to this particular writing exercise.
My son gave up journalism as soon as he moved on to high school. He did not follow his old man into the family business. After he finishes university this spring, he will be working with actual spreadsheets in finance, sensibly steering clear of food writing, and of our media dystopia in general. But he still loves hot chocolate, and is still very discerning about it. Though, these days, he’s more likely to join me in a boozier spiked version.
Spiked hot chocolate is simple. But like all great and simple things, there is nuance and variation.
Focus first on the chocolate. Bitter or sweet? Mexican or French style? Cocoa powder or ganache? Whole milk or heavy cream? Sea salt or spices? A pinch of ancho chile? A little bit of butter? Marshmallow or whipped cream?
We’ve tested several different methods and techniques, as you’ll see in the recipes below. As a rule of thumb, I find that the more expensive, darker, higher-cocoa-percentage don’t always work best in a hot chocolate. In plenty of recipes, sweet Mexican chocolate is superior, though you have to stir really well to avoid a certain gritty texture. Also, when recipes call for cocoa powder, you’d be hard-pressed to beat old Hershey’s Natural Unsweetened.
Then, there is the matter of what to spike the chocolate with. I’ve experimented with all manner of spirits. Consulting many friends over the years, it’s interesting how often green Chartreuse, absinthe, and agave spirits pop up as suggested pairings.
Chartreuse is a no-brainer. For years, the Verte Chaud has been a popular aprés-ski drink in the French Alps, so the idea of green Chartreuse and chocolate isn’t a big shock. I even have a recipe below for Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream (hope you stocked up last year during the Chartreuse shortage!)
Agave spirits also seem logical, considering Mexico’s hot-chocolate connection. Surprisingly, absinthe also works great. Like Chartreuse, its high proof and herbal quality balanced the thick, rich chocolate. I also love kirsch and other schnapps/eaux di vie—which as I’ve expressed many times before are a ride-or-die spirit for me.
The biggest surprise in my spiked hot chocolate experiments, however, is Branca Menta, the minty sibling of Fernet Branca (the infamous bartender’s shot). In fact, I like Branca Menta so much I may have to write a whole other newsletter this winter on the spirit.
In any case, I’d love to encourage you to experiment wildly with different spirits in your hot chocolate, and let me know what you like best.
When I look at the spiked hot chocolate recipes below, it strikes me that two of the three bars they come from do not exist anymore. It makes me feel nostalgic for a certain era of cocktails that existed a decade ago, when we were all younger and perhaps less pretentious.
In any case, if it snows this weekend, I will toast the winter with my son, and see how these drinks stand up to his critic’s palate.
Verte Chaud—green Chartreuse and hot chocolate—is a popular après ski drink in the French Alps. This boozy version, from Jim Meehan (when he was still at PDT), adds a little tequila and spice to light your lantern. It works with both the standard Ibarra Mexican chocolate, and also with the Columbia Room or Pourings Ribbons Hot Chocolate recipes below.
5 ounces Mexican hot chocolate
1½ ounces añejo tequila
½ ounce green Chartreuse
1 dash Cholula hot sauce
Pinch dried ancho chili
Combine all ingredients in a heatproof mug. Garnish with a pinch of dried chili
Columbia Room Hot Chocolate
This may be the perfect hot chocolate to spike, created by Derek Brown at the gone-but-not-forgotten Columbia Room. Originally designed to take a shot of absinthe, you can spike it with many different spirits: Chartreuse, kirsch, spiced rum, mezcal. One of my favorites is Branca Menta, Fernet Branca’s minty cousin.
2 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
3 ounces Mexican sweet chocolate, chopped
Spirit of choice: Chartreuse, kirsch, absinthe, spiced rum, mezcal, Branca Menta, etc.
In a saucepan, heat the milk, cocoa powder, and salt, whisking constantly to combine until the mixture comes to a boil.
Remove from heat and add the chopped chocolate, whisking gently until it’s completely melted. To spike: Pour, while hot, into warm mugs, and stir in ¾ ounce of spirits. Makes 5-6 servings.
This recipe came from the gone-but-not-forgotten East Village bar, Pouring Ribbons, which was once a locus for Chartreuse lovers. Like the other chocolates, it’s versatile and can be used with numerous spirits, though Chartreuse and spiced rum work really well here.
6 ounces Pouring Ribbons Hot Chocolate (below)
1 ounce spirit of your choice
1 dash Angostura bitters
Dollop Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream (below)
Combine spirit and bitters in mug. Top with hot chocolate. Garnish with Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream.
Pouring Ribbons House Hot Chocolate
This recipe uses a ganache, which prevents a gritty texture and adds richness. The ganache is made using one part heavy cream and one part chopped chocolate. Bring the heavy cream to a boil and pour over chopped chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute, then gently stir until emulsified. Use a slightly sweeter dark chocolate, with around 55%-65% cacao. If you use super high-cacao dark chocolate, you may want to add a bit of simple syrup to the final cocktail.
Once you have the ganache, you can make the hot chocolate.
5 heaping tablespoons chocolate ganache
16 ounces whole milk
In a saucepan, heat milk until just below a boil, then immediately reduce heat. Add the ganache and whisk well. Pour hot into a mug, and add your preferred spirit and garnish Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream (below).
Chartreuse-Spiked Whipped Cream
Pouring Ribbons is well known for its vintage Chartreuse collection, and so spiking the whipped cream with it seems like a no-brainer. Be sure to use green Chartreuse and not yellow.
1 cup heavy cream
2 ounces green Chartreuse
2 ounces simple syrup
Pinch of salt
In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, whip together all ingredients to medium peaks.