Has Hot Buttered Rum Lost Its Damn Mind?

The polarizing holiday cocktail is being updated with everything from pumpkin butter to ice cream to tequila.

In the canon of holiday cocktails, Hot Buttered Rum has traditionally been the most maligned, perhaps because its hip-hugging ingredient is right there in its name: butter. Silky and dense, the HBR walks the skinny tightrope between unctuousness and oil-slicked excess, but when executed properly, many bartenders will tell you that it’s an ideal holiday indulgence. It’s just about finding that balance. 

In Jerry Thomas’s 1887 The Bartenders Guide, Hot Buttered Rum involves nothing more than a pat of butter melted into a mug of rum, hot water and sugar. But the most popular renditions involve making a buttery batter imbued with sugar and spices, which is then swirled into a mug with rum and hot water.

One of the pitfalls of the drink, however, is that the butter can just sit right there on the top as opposed to lending the drink its intended silky texture. This struggle is perhaps why a number of rum enthusiasts, including writer Wayne Curtis and Boston bartender Nicole Lebedevitch, recommend adding vanilla ice cream to the batter. This is bartender Andrew Volk’s tack, too, outlined in his recent book, Northern Hospitality; equal parts butter and ice cream are combined with brown sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, resulting in a much creamier drink in the end.

“When mixed with the cream, the butter melts quicker because there is simply less of it,” says Volk. “The cream brings a silky mouthfeel to the whole thing. You’re essentially no longer just tossing sugar mixed with milk solids (butter) into hot water, but also sweetened and flavored cream.”

These days, bartenders are going far beyond the addition of ice cream to take the rich, warming soul of the drink and redefine it for todays palate, often by lowering the alcohol and finding a butter substitute without losing its essence.

In Seattle, sommelier Kathryn Olson and bartender Zac Overman of L’Oursin have been developing a mulled wine version of HBR for a couple of years. This season, it’s finally on the menu. The key to their Vin Beurre, a take on the French vin chaud, was finding the right wine. “We’ve worked with some 100 percent folle blanche and ugni blanc wines in the past, and we love the full body countered by absolutely screaming acidity,” says Overman. To this he adds some honey, thyme, toasted almonds, ginger and golden raisins, crowned by a slip of calvados butter—unsalted butter whipped with Manoir du Montreuil calvados—that he keeps at room temp behind the bar. “Having that extra weight and texture in the winter is really comforting to me,” says Overman.

In this era of fat-washing spirits, it’s no surprise that a number of bartenders are infusing the butter right into the rum itself, giving the flavor and texture, without all the added fat. For his version, Little Drummer Girl, Patrick Halloran at Henrietta Red in Nashville washes the rum with brown butter to add some toastiness and gets the desired spice from a concoction of Amaro di Angostura and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. And in a move that defies the warming quality of the old standard, Halloran serves the drink chilled, topped with whipped banana liqueur cream.

Ryan Lotz, beverage director at Shore Leave Bar in Boston, also serves his chilled, taking inspiration from tiki master Donn Beach’s iced spin on the HBR, the Pearl Diver. He goes one step further, however, and makes his cold buttered drink with reposado tequila and tamarind butter—a far cry from New England’s colonial ties to the cocktail.

Tequila is finding its way into the hot buttered field elsewhere, too. At Arguello in San Francisco,  Enrique Sanchez makes his Pumpkin Buttered Tequila by stirring pumpkin butter into añejo tequila, alongside warming spices including cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Cannella cinnamon cordial, which itself includes four different types of the aromatic spice.

Rather than making the butter element the main event, Grace Bernotavicius, at Chicago’s Ludlow Liquors, gives the rum component full attention in her Not Buttered Rum. She uses three different rums, each contributing something different to the drink: the Venezuelan Santa Teresa 1796 gives a rich sweetness while the Smith & Cross Jamaican rum ups the proof and brings some funk and the Plantation Xaymaca adds a desired dryness.

In fact, there’s no butter in Bernotavicius’s recipe at all. Instead, she uses a cold-pressed, organic coconut oil. “I’ve recently been trying to eat more plant-based, so I was trying to think of a vegan alternative to butter,” Bernotavicius says. First, she used a mixer to cream the oil with sugar and spices—just like any other batter. The result was lacking the texture she was looking for. Ludlow’s chef, Nick Jirasek, recommended she add a pinch of xantham gum (a vegan stabilizer and emulsifier), which was just the trick. “I was finding that the oil was sitting on the top of the drink, this just helped bind everything together,” she says. No ice cream necessary.

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