Cold weather calls for warm beverages. As the holidays give way to slush and stilettos yield to salt-crusted boots, Buffalo beverage aficionados seek out something to soothe the transition. The area’s best bartenders and baristas spend weeks crafting the cocktails and coffees that embody the season, many of which are twists on old favorites.
At Buffalo Proper (333 Franklin St.), Jon Karel spent the fall tweaking his take on the classic Tom & Jerry ($10), locally popularized at the Place on Lexington Avenue. At that late establishment, the 1820s cocktail was made using bourbon and a scoop of meringue from a punch bowl behind the bar, resulting in a sweet, boozy concoction with viscous topping.
Karel uses Appleton rum and Maison Rouge cognac, a sweeter booze amalgamation to enable a less saccharine topping. Instead of the classic nutmeg, his variation features Chinese Five Spice and a dash of cayenne for heat. A little nutmeg is grated over the top, for flair.
[Read a cocktail review of another Karel creation, The Blinker]
“When I think of winter comfort, I think of pho,” Karel said, for his spice inspiration. The drink “is sweet enough, with a slight kick and a slight spice.” Karel makes his Tom & Jerry’s in batches of eight to 10, to eliminate the need for a bowl of batter. His egg, heavy cream and cream of tartar batter is thinner than Western New Yorkers are used to, for a more refined, cleaner flavor.
“Tom & Jerry’s aren’t a thing downstate,” said Karel, “so I think we can credit Buffalo for keeping them alive.” He says his version “is velvety without being thick, with a rounded flavor.”
For fans of the classic sky-high head on their winter warmers, the Northtowns present several chances to try a classic Tom & Jerry with all the fluffy, gooey topping you’ve come to expect from the concoction.
Two of those are McPartlan’s Corner (669 Wehrle Drive, Amherst) and the Glen Park Tavern (5507 Main St., Williamsville). They’re both worth a try, if only for the novelty of a drink that’s part liquid, part cream pie. Both have been making the drinks for years, using the whipped meringue top that has signified the iconic drink for decades.
For an updated take on a recipe as old as time, Bryan Mecozzi at Black Iron Bystro (3648 South Park Ave., Blasdell), has reinvented hot buttered rum with the addition of hot cider, for $7.
“We had an abundance of cider,” Mecozzi said, noting the cider was originally ordered to brine pork belly. “Since we wanted to use up what was around, we decided to make a hot buttered rum, which was always popular at Vera Pizzeria.” Mecozzi uses Appleton Jamaican rum for a warming, slightly sweet and spiced creation that transitions smoothly from fall into winter and beyond.
Also on the menu is the Drunken Elf, a drink conceived with the proprietors of Death’s Door with Wondermint, a peppermint and absinthe spirit. Bystro’s bartenders blend that with Borghetti espresso liquor, hot cocoa and whipped cream topped with peppermint and chocolate shavings for a modern twist on adult hot cocoa.
[Read about how Black Iron Bystro fits into Andrew Galarneau's New-School Buffalo restaurants]
“The absinthe and mint warms you up and the espresso adds that extra umami,” Mecozzi explained. The cocktail is velvety smooth with that peppermint kick with a light anise note giving it balance against the nutty espresso. The Bystro uses Fowler’s drinking chocolate, in keeping with the restaurant’s hyper-local focus.
Mes Que soccer bar (1420 Hertel Ave.) keeps a low profile with cocktail fans, but the drink menu is as surprising its televised matches often are. Bar manager Rachel Wright said that winter makes her think of spice-heavy cocktails that create a feeling of warmth. African and Indian spices in particular grace the Mes Que menu, a creative departure from the standard nutmeg and cinnamon.
At the North Buffalo mainstay, the staff spends three months creating its seasonal menu, in a move Wright said mimics the community.
“We find (our process) makes for more involved cocktails,” Wright said. That process starts with research, followed by brainstorming and tasting, tasting and more tasting. “We want to make sure the end product shows what work went into it.”
Mes Que’s winter menu will be released in mid-January, and will include a cocktail with a gingersnap fat wash, rye and pumpkin cordial for what she called a “very seasonal and warming sensation.” That drink is dubbed the “Snaps for You.”
While many establishments focus on brown liquors such as rye and bourbon, Mes Que also looks to gin for its juniper flavors. Wright said she is considering blending it with blue spruce to evoke wintergreen, its cooling taste reminiscent of winter woods. “I think it’d be interesting,” she mused.
Tony Rials of Bourbon & Butter in Hotel @ The Lafayette (391 Washington St.) set the bar with wintergreen flavors last season, and this winter’s menu will be no exception to Rials’ reputation for excellence. The Female Dog features plum fruits and pits, coffee, sesame, amaranthe and buttercream ($10). Rials said he chose to include the pits for their roasted flavor and forest-sweet fruit.“I like the idea of plum and sesame together and how they complement coffee,” he noted. “To me, the toasted pits play well with the nutty tones you get in coffee, kind of imitate them.”
At Vera Pizzeria (220 Lexington Ave.), the joint that started the cocktail revolution in Western New York, bar manager Jason Wood goes back to his roots for winter inspiration. A fan of the warming, velvety flavor oak barrels impart, Wood enjoys bourbon, scotch and rye in the colder months, especially Bird Dog Bourbon as a base spirit for its mixability and taste.
“You want a bold whiskey you can subdue if you need to that will show its face as well,” he said. In addition, Wood said he likes tequila in the winter as well, as an unconventional base spirit, as well as absinthe for its anise flavor as an accent.
The winter cocktail that really stands out at Vera is the Back in My Day ($10), with cherry vanilla tobacco-infused bourbon, hickory smoked syrup and orinoco bitters. Wood created the cocktail to harken back to his grandfather’s pipe smoke, a childhood memory that warms the manager both emotionally and physically.
“My grandfather always smoked cherry vanilla tobacco, so I made this cocktail in his honor,” he said. “Whenever I make it, I think of him, and that’s a good feeling.” The smoky, slightly fruity drink has a nice back-end spice, almost like a cigar in a glass. It’s easy to envision the patriarch with a pipe between his teeth, every sip of the way.
[Read about another of Jason Wood's hot cocktails, the Blazing Monk]
Finally, at Tony Rome’s Globe Hotel in East Aurora, a 20-year-old recipe is the backbone for its hot buttered rum, available both with and without alcohol.
A blend of melted ice cream and sugar creates the basis for this sweet winter sip, a classic with alcohol ($4) or without ($3). This winter standard is a more budget-friendly option for those who would rather not spend $10 for a drink, but still want something special for the season.
[ICYMI: The Tony Rome's in West Seneca closed in February 2015]
Whether you stop by Rome’s or belly up to Rials’ bar, Western New York offers a bevy of options for winter beverages at an equally wide array of price points. Regardless of whose hand pushes the glass across the rail, one thing is certain: Winter drinks warm from the inside out, no flannel required.