The hush of evening falls as the day’s warm breeze brushes against you in the dimming light.
And there you sit, looking out into the dusk with a “nightcap” in hand, leisurely enjoying the last moments of the day. Ah, the nightcap: a short and dark alcoholic beverage that helps bring about sleep and a night rich in dreams. Its origins can be traced to 1827 and the book Oxford Night Caps, which contained recipes for the intoxicating delights favored by the dons and students of Oxford University. The nightly ritual of putting on a cloth nightcap to keep the head warm went hand in hand with taking in a warming drink, leading to the naming of this “postprandial indulgence.”
Rich in the spicy flavors of port wine, cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, ginger, sugar, and lemon, the traditional nightcap is complex and time-consuming to prepare. Spirits and liqueurs deep and dark in nature—like brandy, bourbon, whiskey, and dark rum—as well as cream-based liqueurs like Irish Cream also show up regularly in traditional nightcaps. Liqueurs add sweetness, depth, and a sense of mystery. With botanical elements sourced from around the globe and recipes held secret for generations, these liqueurs can be an ingredient in a cocktail or enjoyed on their own.
These days, we can enjoy a nightcap all year round, as a cooling drink with ice or as a warming cup. An alternative modern drink for summer evenings can take the form of Cointreau Noir, a sweet and delightful orange liqueur made from orange peel and rémy Martin Cognac and macerated with walnuts and almonds. Master distiller Bernadette Langlois worked with Edouard Cointreau to create the perfect evening drink, delicious served over ice in an Old Fashioned glass.
Declan McGurk, head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy, London’s most famous hotel, recommends a dose of Fernet-Branca as his nightcap of choice. An intensely bitter Italian liqueur hailing from Milan and first produced in 1845 from “selected blossoms and rare aromatic herbs, carefully aged in the historic Branca cellars,” it can be served on the rocks with plenty of ice. With exotic ingredients such as myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, gentian, and bitter orange, this drink seems to have magical properties as you sip it and inhale its vapors.
Head of Spirit and Cocktail Development at Duck & Waffle and Sushi Samba in the City of London, richard Woods has made a name for himself as an innovative and imaginative mixologist. His recommendation for the ideal “end of the evening” nightcap is the Martinez. Although a gin-based cocktail, it takes its flavors from herby vermouth, bitters, and maraschino cherry liqueur. The resulting creation is dark in color, deep in flavor, and certainly worthy of nightcap status.
For those seeking a more calming end to the day, take refuge in the soothing comfort of warm milk but with a boozy addition. Heating up a mug of milk with a couple of teaspoons of clear honey will calm the nerves and settle the mind; adding a shot or two of dark rum will increase the flavors and bring a tingle to the toes. To finish, a grating of fresh nutmeg releases essential oils to excite the nose; the rich spice notes satisfy the palate and generate feelings of exotic climes.
And so the nightcap, that single and precious drink at the end of the day, should be delighted upon and savored at leisure. Not a drink to be hurried or rushed, it aids a smooth journey into the world of dreams.