In winter’s harshest moments, a hot beverage is like a good sweater. But why settle for the minimum? A boozy hot beverage is a sweater backed up by thermal underwear and a wool hat. Not only does it warm you up, it continues heating long after you’ve stepped out into the frost (or massively accelerates a thaw).
When it comes to hot cocktails, though, we have an extremely limited roster of drinks, running pretty much from the Irish Coffee to mulled wine or cider to the Hot Toddy. I love them all, and they do the job. But, for me, there’s one that stands above the rest: Hot Buttered Rum. Not only is it boozily delicious, bringing sweet, spicy warmth with every sip, but it also has an ironclad historical pedigree.
New England rum production would decline—and beer and whiskey would rise—during and after the Revolution, when the British routinely disrupted American trade with the Caribbean. The rum of the day, however, would have been strong, harsh, and probably only slightly ameliorated by light aging. Adding sweeteners and spices was common, and in the brutal New England winters, hot rum was bolstered by butter. The drink was ubiquitous.
Today Hot Buttered Rum’s major problem is that its unique feature, butter, turns some people off. Without butter, it’s just one of myriad variations on the Hot Toddy. With it, it’s a caloric beast with an oleaginous slick. Oil, as we know, doesn’t mix with water, instead forming a greasy scum on the top. Ungenerous reactions to this drink note as much; revered mid-century writer David Embury wrote in his 1948 classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks that “Of all the hot liquors, I regard buttered rum as the worst…the lump of butter is the final insult. It blends with the hot rum just about as satisfactorily as warm olive oil blends with champagne!”
However, the butter here is a feature, not a bug. Drinks with butter go back centuries, crossing cultures along the way. The first recorded recipe for “Buttered Beere” dates to 1588. In Tibet, yak butter tea is a staple. Even today, butter-laden “Bulletproof Coffee” is a morning beverage of choice for avid biohackers.
For those who don’t like unintegrated butter in their drinks, there’s a solution. Years ago, the great San Francisco bartender Marcovaldo Dionysus—before he began pulling shifts at Smuggler’s Cove—made me a delicious, sweet, hot rummy drink. I asked him what it was and he said it was HBR. “Where’s the butter?” I asked. “I don’t add butter separately,” he said. “I use a batter.” After a little research, I found HBRs made with a batter have quite a following. Surprisingly, the standard HBR base employs vanilla ice cream, which somehow helps the butter emulsify into the drink.
HBRs made with a batter aren’t true to the original spirit of the drink, but they are delicious and keep the butter-averse happy. Plus, you can keep the batter in the freezer for weeks, using it as needed—which, if the snow piles up, will probably be often.
This story was featured in W&S February 2017.
photo by Kelly Puleio