With a few exceptions—an easy-breezy gin and tonic, or a Yuletide eggnog—most of us don’t really think of booze as being seasonal. If you’re a vodka fan, you’re probably a vodka fan in searing heat and snowfall alike, and a drink’s a drink, right?
Many bartenders would beg to differ. With spirits as with food (or beer and wine, for that matter, which I’ll get to in my next column), warmer weather welcomes lighter, brighter textures and flavors, while cooler temperatures call for heavier, headier stuff. Now that fall has fallen and winter’s on its way, I asked a couple of industry pros what they’re thinking about drinking now.
“This might sound strange,” says Jon Griffiths, beverage director of the Datz Restaurant Group in Tampa, Florida, “but one of my biggest go-to spirits in the fall is aged rum.” Though the sugarcane spirit has earned a reputation as “a summery, beachy-type spirit for tiki drinks or mojitos,” it becomes something else entirely with prolonged time in the barrel.
For one thing, the aging process is also a concentrating process, so that “what starts out as a lighter spirit becomes a rich one.” For another, “you get all those baking-spice notes—cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, clove”—that not only evoke everybody’s favorite holiday desserts, but also “work well with other fall flavors, like cranberry.”
That lusciousness certainly lends itself to a cocktail like the Fostering the Banana, Griffiths’ liquid take on, you guessed it, Bananas Foster. The combination of Appleton Estate Reserve Rum, banana liqueur, burnt-sugar syrup, and black-walnut bitters might be a bit too intense for the dog days, but it packs just the right punch as a winter soul-warmer.
Not that you have to have mixology skills to appreciate aged rum—all you really need is a bottle and a glass. In addition to Appleton Estate, Griffiths recommends brands such as Diplomático and Angostura for sipping straight. “They’re so complex on their own that you don’t need to do anything to them,” he says. Or, you could add a shot to a pumpkin-spice latte: “Warm or cold, that is absolutely amazing.”
Whiskey, too, has its time and place, according to Griffiths. “As the seasons change, my go-tos change. I start moving from bourbon to Scotch in the fall—nice, pretty Highland Scotches like Glenmorangie tend to be on the sweeter side, but also have that nice, malty richness that I’m looking for.”
He uses Balvenie 12 Year in a recurring staple, the Malt and Maduro. It’s made with vanilla syrup and both chocolate and Angostura bitters, then smoked with Maduro tobacco to “recreate the tradition of having a Scotch and a cigar.”
Home bartenders, meanwhile, might be just as satisfied with a Rob Roy, essentially a Scotch Manhattan. “It’s pretty nice this time of year,” Griffiths promises.
“Fall in Ohio is really fun,” says Logan Demmy, head bartender at The Citizens Trust in Columbus. “One day, it’s 75 degrees outside and the next, it’s in the low 40s, so you can kind of play in both worlds,” alternating “light, refreshing, and shaken” drinks with hot or stirred ones.
Like Griffiths, Demmy ushers in the season by transitioning to barrel-aged spirits, in his case, tequila and gin.
“I generally prefer blanco tequila, because I love the flavor of the agave,” he admits. But reposado has “a little bit more heft, a little bit more weight,” to support a cocktail like the Golden Age, his twist on a Golden Cadillac. Featuring Espolòn tequila, it gains lusciousness from Galliano, a vanilla-infused Italian liqueur, and elote cream, made with corn, coconut, toasted cocoa nibs, and toasted cinnamon (which sounds a lot like the Mexican masa-and-chocolate drink called champurrado, a holiday classic).
As for barrel-aged gin, Demmy says, “I’ve been loving Ransom Old Tom—you have all these fresh botanical flavors you’d expect from the category, but you also get those caramel and vanilla notes. And it’s aged in Pinot Noir casks, so you get those fruit characteristics, too.”
To complement the latter, he’s currently using it with cherry liqueur in a cocktail he calls the Suffering Bastard #2, which couldn’t be more autumnal, in that it also contains Laird’s Applejack and smoky peated Scotch—think orchard bushels and burning leaf piles.
In fact, applejack, a blend of apple brandy and grain spirits, stands out all by itself as a consummate expression of harvest time. Demmy recommends the “really brilliant” Ohio brand Tom’s Foolery. Check the website for availability—it’s limited but not impossible to find—and try it in a Jack Rose with grenadine, lemon juice, and bitters.