As the punctuation to a night, the nightcap has the power to make your evening one to remember. So why do so many of us take it for granted?
Though often used as a flimsy plot device in romantic comedies, the nightcap comes with both tradition and purpose. Aside from acting as a classy pin to stick in an evening, it’s also an effective way to wind the night down—an elegant end to a night out, a gentle yielding instead of an abrupt stop. And bartenders, unsurprisingly, have a plethora of opinions on the matter—from what to drink to when and how to drink it. After all, as much as they facilitate nightcaps for others, their nights tend to conclude with one, too.
“Nightcap is a relative word,” says Jim Meehan, owner of New York’s PDT. “But it’s certainly an important drink, because it’s the last drink, it’s the one that punctuates a night out.” But what type of mark is most appropriate? A conventional period, wrapping things up all pert and professional? An ellipsis, casually lulling you off to Neverland? Or an exclamation point, ending the proceedings with a dramatic pop?
It’s all of the above, of course. It just depends on who you ask.
“Nightcap, to me, puts me in a specific mind frame,” says Karri Cormican, bartender at Wildhawk in San Francisco. “I want something a little bit stronger, heavy and distinct, to go out with a bang.” Cormican manipulates this expectation in her Sailin’ On, which augments a primary base of St-Germain with Galliano Ristretto and Fernet Branca. “The bright hints of herbs and mint balanced with the mellow coffee flavor make this cocktail a perfect end-of-the-night, slow-sipping cocktail,” she says.
Dan Greenbaum, of New York’s Attaboy, also tends toward darker, “more contemplative spirits,” like high-end brandies or aged rums. He uses a whisper of St-Germain, along with 12-year-old Scotch and a touch of tawny port, to create the dessert-like Turn Down Service.
Some bartenders have also gotten behind a growing trend: the low-alcohol, lighter-bodied nightcap. Moving toward options like sherries, vermouths, liqueurs and cordials adds a manageable zip to the practice. Amari, too—whether on their own or mixed with an accompanying digestif—are gaining a place among professional nightcap enthusiasts.
“If [customers] want one more, we usually direct them toward amaro,” says Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau. For herbal-liqueur skeptics, or those seeking that bitterness in a bar that doesn’t offer amari, he suggests his Cooper’s Nightcap, a layered Pousse Café–esque combo of chilled crème de mûre, Angostura bitters and St-Germain.
With so many choices extending beyond strong, neat-poured spirits or the classic boilermaker, the options for a proper nightcap in 2016 are nearly endless—and inclusive of both high- and lowbrow drinking tastes. Regardless of one’s drink of choice, however, there’s an unforeseen effect caused by today’s plethora of nightcap options: The danger that “one more drink” can easily turn into two, three or more. Which is why the first rule of the nightcap is that there is no “s” in nightcap.
As Greenbaum advises: “Ask for your bill with the last drink.”