It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when the term “nightcap” became widely used to refer to that last drink before bed. We can whittle it down to sometime in the early 19th century, as evidenced by the 1827 publication of Oxford Night Caps—a comprehensive cocktail guide distributed among the students of the posh University.
By contemporary standards, some of the drinks contained in Oxford Night Caps seem more likely to encourage twilight terrors than restful sleep—the instructions for Egg Punch, for instance, call for “four glasses of calves-feet jelly in a liquid state” to complement generous glugs of brandy. Later editions of that same book end up featuring a number of lighter options, like Sherry Cobblers and “cooling and wholesome” Cups. This tells us that, in spite of its reputation, the nightcap, then and now, does not have to be strong to be relevant.
So, how do we define the nightcap today? It’s a broad question with more than one right answer, and this flexibility empowers the modern drinker to make some interesting choices about what goes in their glass. But before taking that first sip, a permanent shift in philosophy is in order: We should start by looking at the nightcap less clinically and more mirthfully, as an accentuating toast to the events that preceded it.
Considering the nightcap category beyond its most obvious touchstones frees us up to drink what we want, not just what’s long been deemed appropriate. A two-finger pour of your best-loved firewater remains a fine choice, of course, but there is an entire spirituous universe to consider in this space. In How to Drink French Fluently, we featured the widely varied nightcap creations of bartenders around the country, which hewed naturally to session cocktails, offering ample flavor and character in approachable often-low-ABV format. Turns out those bartenders also had invaluable advice for building nightcaps, and a nightcap-ready bar, at home.
“For me, what makes a great nightcap is something that’s going to leave me feeling satiated but also refreshed,” says Kimberly Rosselle of San Francisco’s Trick Dog. Her end-of-night go-tos? Low-ABV favorites like spritzes and the Bamboo, a 19th century classic involving equal parts vermouth and sherry, spiked with bitters. She adds that “there’s been a strong shift among bartenders toward liqueurs”—which, like fortified wines and amari, are big on character but not on proof (and can come with the requisite digestive effects). In response to the uptick, Rosselle put a St-Germain boilermaker on Trick Dog’s menu.
Simple cocktails, too, can do the trick, as Jim Meehan demonstrates with his DuBoudreau Cocktail, a mix of rye, Dubonnet Rouge and equal parts Fernet Branca and St-Germain. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” Meehan says—so long as the drink helps you decompress and close out the night.
Here, the key bottles to stock for mixing up a nightcap at home at a moment’s notice.
BUILDING A NIGHTCAP BAR
Building a proper home bar can be daunting, but prepping your house to accommodate any nightcap is a far simpler, and equally noble, pursuit.
Spirits: Start simply by stocking base bottles. Whether it’s whiskey, gin, mezcal or tequila, if you enjoy sipping them neat, then they are nimble enough to mix, too. Raines Law Room bar director Meaghan Dorman recommends investing in a solid aged rum as well. “A good aged rum is wonderful to sip on, and has that touch of sweetness and some lovely coffee, chocolate and vanilla notes,” she says. “They tend to be rich, and play well with amaro or vermouths, but also they are great on their own.”
Vermouth and Sherry: More delicate and nuanced than straight spirits, fortified wines may not scream “nightcap,” but their immense versatility makes them an invaluable home bar tool. Stocking a sweet vermouth and an oloroso or amontillado sherry (both of which can be swapped in for sweet vermouth in classics) is a nightcap must. Just remember that fortified wines have a limited shelf life and fare best when kept cold.
Liqueurs: Amari can provide an easy riffing point—though drinking them straight is always a fine option, too. “Amari are practically cocktails in a bottle by themselves, so it won’t get any easier,” says Jamie Boudreau of Canon in Seattle. Elsewhere, herbal and floral liqueurs like Chartreuse, Suze and St-Germain are important additions to the nightcap arsenal. “A lot of people like to finish their night with a cocktail instead of a straight spirit,” says Meehan, referring to the role of these liqueurs as more complex sweeteners in drinks like, say, the Old-Fashioned. “And for those people, St-Germain works as a great modifier—a nice accent to some of those more powerful spirits.”
Aromatic Bitters: With their innumerable applications, a bottle each of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters provide the “seasoning” a home bar requires. But the world of bitters is vast, so don’t limit yourself. Stocking a larger range of bitters—from orange to lavender to smoked chile—is a simple way to add aromatic complexity and a whisper of bitterness to any nightcap.