A warm whiskey cocktail sounds like something the black-hatted bad guy orders in a classic western. Jim Kearns, bar director at Slowly Shirley in Manhattan, which features four “room-temperature cocktails,” offers an equally colorful history. “They were once called scaffa-style drinks, meaning a mixed libation that was not chilled and did not use ice,” says Kearns, noting the word “scaffa” may have derived from the Italian for “cupboard,” suggesting these drinks went directly from cupboard to glass.
Slowly Shirley offers a Room Temperature Manhattan using Heaven Hill’s Pikesville rye at 110 proof. “When sipped slowly and allowed to warm, a Manhattan becomes different, but not worse. It owes to the fact that good whiskey is enjoyable warm with a little dilution,” says Kearns. For that reason, Slowly Shirley eschews ice in their room-temperature cocktails, but breaks with scaffa tradition by adding water. “The addition of water and vermouth take a higher proof whiskey, loosen it up, and slow it down on the palate, while showcasing the spirit,” says Kearns. From a physics perspective, eliminating the cold temperature increases volatility and aromatic molecules.
H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of Elixir in San Francisco notes warm cocktails are equally an homage to the “bittered sling,” the way drinks were enjoyed before the introduction of ice in the 1830s. His foray into tepid drinks includes the Warm Pilgrim, designed to temper the proof of Wild Turkey 101 while adding subtle complementary flavors. “These drinks focus on my love of straight spirits and their appreciation at room temperature,” says Ehrmann.
Chris Hanna, head bartender at French 75 at Arnaud’s in New Orleans, created the Rebbenack by funneling 4 ounces rye whiskey, 1 ounce Averna, and ½ ounce Créole Shrubb into his flask before placing it on the menu at French 75. “When you simply touch a good whiskey with the right modifiers, you realize it’s the cocktail you wanted all along,” says Hanna.
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