On a cold winter day, a cup of hot chocolate feels like the ultimate comfort move. Regular ol’ Swiss Miss with a heavy swirl of whipped cream definitely does the trick, but a slug of liquor gives this childhood favorite a grown-up makeover, while also boosting its warming properties and turning it into an adult-snow-day icon.
But which spirit blends most smoothly with the chocolate flavor and produces the best next-level cocoa? We consulted 9 bartenders, who provided us with this list of libations that merit a liberal pour into your favorite oversized mug.
(Not a hot chocolate fan? Here are our picks for how to spike your cider.)
Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Bourbon’s inherent sweetness makes it a natural fit for hot chocolate, and senior beverage director Megan Ardizoni of PHD Terrace in New York City is particularly partial to Woodford Reserve for this purpose. “When choosing a whiskey to pair with hot chocolate, the devil is in the details. Woodford Reserve Bourbon is a perfect complement [because] it’s warming from the inside out, with complex citrus notes kissed with baking spices and a structure that blends well with the richness of the chocolate,” Ardizoni tells us.
Kinsey American Whiskey
An American whiskey with an appealingly-woodsy flavor profile, Kinsey “is a great addition to any hot chocolate. Made with a corn base, the Kinsey American Whiskey pays homage to the origins of American whiskey creation and is aged in oak. This 10-year whiskey is bright and rich with floral and semi-sweet vanilla notes that pair perfectly with chocolate,” explains manager and mixologist Emily Rodia of Art in the Age in Philadelphia.
PB&W Peanut Butter-Flavored Whiskey
It’s tough to argue against the peanut-butter-and-chocolate flavor combination: This blend is fully ingrained in American culinary culture for very good reason. Owner & bar manager George Reilly of The Twisted Tail in Philadelphia likes to pay homage to this dynamic dessert duo by adding PB&W Peanut Butter Whiskey to his hot cocoa: “[If you want] something adventurous but packed with fun, PB&W is made for the occasion! It is a peanut butter whiskey; how can you go wrong? Not only will you pump up the potency of your hot chocolate, but, um … peanut butter! Say no more!”
Dictador 12 Year Rum
Like bourbon, aged rums possess a natural sweetness, which help them blend harmoniously with dessert-like items, including hot chocolate. Beverage director Matt Bagnola of Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods in Chicago opts for Dictador 12 Year Rum, telling us that “Dictador is a lesser-known Columbian rum that drinks very clean with great flavor from the barrels. The caramel and spice notes play perfectly with a steamy cup of hot chocolate
Don Julio 1942 Añejo
“For an overcast or chilly afternoon in the winter months next to the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, I prefer to mix hot chocolate with tequila,” says bar director Josh Curtis of Carbon Beach Club Restaurant in Malibu, CA. “[I especially enjoy] a bottle that has a rustic aroma of butterscotch and dried grass like Don Julio 1942 añejo tequila. When you infuse [this tequila] with toasted pumpkin seeds, there is a nuttiness that pairs nicely with the cinnamon and white pepper tasting notes of this aged agave spirit. Tequila and hot chocolate are natural flavor-profile friends from the beginning, so the churro-flavored finish this tequila imparts performs a delightful dance with the hot cocoa.”
Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur
Chocolate holds up well to spice and heat, so adding a chile liqueur like Ancho Reyes to hot cocoa feels like a wise choice. “Ancho Reyes has a lovely sweet heat with some Mexican spice, [so it’s] the perfect base for an intriguing Mexican chocolate-style hot cocoa. The spirit itself is handmade in Puebla, Mexico from sun-dried poblano chiles that are cut by hand and macerated in cane syrup over 6 months. In addition to the spice, it has complex flavors of tamarind, cocoa, and cinnamon, [along] with some intriguing herbal/oaky notes. This contrasts beautifully with hot chocolate and prevents the concoction from becoming overly sweet. If you’re feeling frisky, go with a traditional Mexican chocolate recipe [with] predominant flavors of cacao nib, cinnamon, and vanilla to deepen the complexity and make your hot chocolate one of a kind!” recommends lead bartender Meagan Cheek of Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails in Mount Pleasant, SC.
Hailing from Spain, Licor 43 holds distinction as the top-selling Spanish liqueur in the world. This spirit’s notes of orange and vanilla correspond well with hot chocolate’s richness, as explained by lead bartender Freddy Salazar of Ortzi in NYC: “[This] traditional Spanish orange liqueur [has] 43 different ingredients. The citrusy orange profile from the liqueur adds more flavor to the rich chocolate used (Salazar uses Valrhona chocolate in Ortzi’s spiked hot cocoa). Both aromatic flavors complement each other beautifully and the alcohol taste is almost non-existent. Serve garnished with an orange peel twist.”
Hot cocoa includes a creamy texture, so it stands to reason that a cream liqueur would make a satisfying spirits partner for this winter wonder. Los Angeles bartender, TV host, and Neft Vodka brand ambassador Luke Barr offers up a unique choice for his favorite cream liqueur for hot chocolate: Amarula. “I was first introduced to cream liqueurs by my mother. She loves a good, creamy and velvety cocktail like a White Russian [or an] Irish coffee. Pretty much anything creamy and sweet. When she decided to go on an African safari in 2009, I couldn’t resist the urge to join her. Once in Africa, we were quickly introduced to Amarula, a cream liqueur made from the marula fruit. My mother and I were fast fans of this [spirit], as it blended like a coffee creamer but could also be sipped on over ice like Baileys. We spent every night by a fire with new friends drinking creamy [and] sweet concoctions all made with this almost-nutty fruit liqueur, [and] our favorite was one made with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and dried orange,” Barr says of this South African specialty.
Herbaceous liqueurs bring a distinct depth that cuts through the sweetness of hot cocoa, and one French spirit beloved by bartenders everywhere — Green Chartreuse — takes that challenge and runs a marathon with it. Founder Mary Wright of RiNo Yacht Club in Denver, CO recommends that hot cocoa drinkers “[use] Green Chartreuse, if your budget allows. To some, this might seem like a no-brainer or maybe too easy, but there’s a reason [that] classic pairings are classic – they work perfectly together! And to those that have not yet had this experience, prepare to have your socks blown off by the deliciousness of hot chocolate paired with the herbal richness of this Alpine liqueur.”
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