The snow pants of winter cocktails, the Hot Buttered Rum comes out only a couple of times a year, likely during the holidays or the darkest depths of post-solstice purgatory. And, thanks to its prep quotient, it’s typically the kind of thing you encounter at the cocktail bar. (Unless, of course, you are one of those ambitious, 19th-century, Blue Blazer–making types—then by all means, carry on.) The Hot Buttered Rum, though, is no more difficult than making a butter-based cookie batter or a compound butter, and can be brought home and into the modern era with a few simple techniques and tricks.
“It’s not a challenging drink, and that’s the beauty of it,” says Andrew Volk, of Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine. “It’s smooth, it’s sweet and it’s hot.” While antiquated versions of the Hot Buttered Rum contained nothing more than butter, sugar, rum and hot water, contemporary iterations can contain everything from chile crisp and cocoa powder to turmeric and galangal. The two keys are in how the batter is blended and how the drink is built.
The Base: A Hot Buttered Rum batter is nothing more than compound butter: good quality, unsalted butter emulsified with sugar and spices. Chris Hannah, of Manolito and Jewel of the South in New Orleans, recommends starting with a base batter ratio of one pound of butter to one pound of brown sugar, and mixing in the basic baking spices from there. Of those flavors, Rob Jones, of Meteor in Minneapolis, says, “The grandma spices—cinnamon, nutmeg and clove—are necessary,” adding that “grinding them yourself is going to give you more flavor.” Both Hannah and Jones bring their butter to room temperature before cutting it up and throwing it into a KitchenAid with the brown sugar and spices and whipping at a medium speed until blended, but not so much that it becomes warm or too aerated. Salt to taste.
The Riffs: Though a Hot Buttered Rum is beautiful in its most basic form, the spiced base is an excellent canvas on which to riff. Boston bartender Jackson Cannon says a little cayenne can go a long way. “If you like smoked chiles, an ancho spice can play into the richness without too much burning.” (Cannon also prefers to use Domino golden sugar, which he says adds a more floral note than brown, but behaves the same way white sugar does.) In New Orleans, Hannah keeps a roster of rotating flavors on the menu including chocolate (just add cocoa powder), hibiscus-galangal (add ground hibiscus and galangal) and creole (add cayenne, toasted fennel and ginger). In the past, he’s done a coconut and coconut cream version.
The East Coast Way: Cannon and Volk both augment their batter with the traditional East Coast ingredient of slightly softened ice cream. “It makes sense,” says Cannon. “It’s already processed and aerated, and adds more of the same flavor.” Volk believes it adds a depth of flavor and another element of dairy fat beyond butter. He recommends using the highest-quality local ice cream you can find and toggles between dulce de leche and vanilla. “It gets kind of gloopy, but you throw the batter in the freezer and it comes back together,” he says.
A Note on Storage: Once your batter is made, it can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer all season long, and dolloped out as needed. Cannon recommends rolling the batter into a log, like you might cookie dough, wrapping it in plastic or parchment, and slicing it off or portioning it out as needed. (He got the idea while watching chefs at the charcuterie station prepping torchon.) Jones says his team keeps the batter in pastry bags and pipes them à la minute into the bottom of a mug.
The Heat: Like with a Hot Toddy, the most important element of building a Hot Buttered Rum is that it be hot. Start by pouring piping hot water into your mug to temper it. Once it’s hot, toss out the water. To the bottom of the mug, add the batter (one tablespoon is a good baseline), which ideally should be room temperature. At this point, Volk recommends pouring in 3 ounces of piping hot water and mixing it together with an electric milk aerator, a whisk or a fork, then adding the spirit and the rest of the water. In Minneapolis, Jones swaps hot water for a tart, local hot apple cider, saying the acidity tempers the cocktail’s sweetness.
The Spirit: “The flavor of liquor, when it’s in a hot drink, is exponentially stronger,” says Hannah, who uses 1 3/4 ounces in his Hot Buttered build and sometimes substitutes whiskey or brandy for rum. Jones uses overproof rum, and less of it, in order to save space in the glass and also recommends swapping in aged aquavit for its caraway notes, which are an unexpected complement to the spiced batter. Cannon and Volk both prefer a rum with age and a caramel note. While Cannon recommends a Jamaican rum, Volk plays it straight on flavor: “Personally, I avoid the funk,” says Volk. “We use Privateer Amber because it’s got those toasty notes, some sweetness and baking spices.”
The Garnish: The most classic Hot Buttered garnish is a cinnamon stick, which doubles as a stirring tool and continues to subtly flavor the drink until the bottom. Clove-studded apple slices, star anise and grated nutmeg are also all fair game.