A standard Hot Toddy, with its brownish hue, cinnamon aromas and double wallop of booze and lemon, can feel more like a medicinal beverage than a festive treat. Drink this when chilled to the bone or sick with a head cold, the prescription reads. But a lesser-known Japanese version starring the bitter aperitif Campari tints the wintry cocktail festive red, exuding citrusy brightness, baking spices and a bitter edge that’s warm and welcoming.
According to Japanese American bartender Julia Momosé, who offers a variation on Hotto (“hot”) Campari in her book, The Way of the Cocktail, the drink isn’t necessarily a staple in Japan, “but if you know you know.” For a few bars in Osaka and Tokyo, as winter’s chill settles over the season, the Italian liqueur makes the jump from cocktails on the rocks to glass mugs adorned with orange wheels.
Japan has a rich culture of mixing hot water and spirits. Shochu Oyuwari (“mixed with hot water”) is one of the most popular ways to enjoy the aromatic indigenous spirit, for example. Even so, Momosé was nervous the first time she ordered Hotto Campari (ホット・カンパリ) at a bar somewhere in Osaka. She’d typically reserved Campari for aperitifs or refreshing drinks like Campari and soda at Kumiko, her Chicago bar. Plus, a second, more glaring concern loomed.
“Sometimes with hot cocktails, the heat makes the alcohol feel that much more intense and makes things feel even more bitter than they actually are,” says Momosé.
Instead, she was pleasantly surprised at the toddy’s balance, and the seamless way the Campari’s bitterness blossomed within the warm cocktail, which was flavored simply with honey and lemon. “It was so comforting,” she recalls. “I think it’s the botanicals; just think about how well teas and tisanes work hot, sweetened ever so slightly for balance. It reminds me of chai in a way, with all these baking spices you get from the Campari.”
Like other bartenders throughout Japan, Momosé tweaks the standard drink with a few choice accenting ingredients. Bold, with strength enough to warm you through, her version’s inclusion of rich honey syrup lends roundness and softens the lemon’s bright acidity. (Momosé wouldn’t rule out subbing in orange, considering it’s peak citrus season this time of year.) In a nod to Japan’s beloved Shochu Oyuwari, she doubles down on the drink’s citrus notes with Awa No Kaori Sudachi Chu, a fruity, bittersweet shochu distilled with sudachi citrus juice, further softening the drink’s bitter edge. Perhaps the biggest surprise comes from the accenting splash of kümmel, which adds warming caraway and cumin, “almost curry-like” spice notes to the mix, she says. “I wanted to really lean into this being a wintery cocktail that warms you inside [and] out just from the aroma.”
Momosé’s Hotto Campari isn’t on the menu at Kumiko, but—if you know you know—you can request it. And the warm-botanicals epiphany has since sent her down a bit of a rabbit hole; she recently added a hot gin and cream sherry cocktail to Kumiko’s winter menu called the Summer in Spain. And indeed, upon learning of at least one known entity serving a Hot Negroni during winter, specifically J & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse in San Diego, she’s intrigued. “I bet that’s so good! Warmed sweet vermouth would be lovely, with those mulled-wine vibes.”
For Momosé, these hot cocktails speak to the importance of adapting drinks for the seasons, rather than closing ourselves off to the possibility. Nearly every classic has a frozen riff, and just as a Negroni slushy refreshes us in summer, “why not have a warm, comforting version in wintertime and see another side of it?” she says.
Plus, the bittersweet, brilliant-red steaming cup of Campari is a literal bright spot during the cold months.
“I get seasonal affective disorder; I’m affected so much when the sun disappears for so long in winter,” Momosé says. “Having anything colorful in my life or my glass makes a really big difference.”