Hot Chocolate is the ultimate treat.
Candy, cake, donuts, they’re all great, but nothing feels so much like being hugged by someone who loves you as a mug of hot chocolate—the moment a child receives one is a joy so vivid it practically lights the room. Try to remember: It’s after a day of playing in the snow. You come inside, wet and freezing cold and discover to your impossible delight that you have a hot chocolate waiting for you. Do you remember that moment? How it felt?
I’ll go a step further: There is no other childhood treat that so perfectly overlays onto adulthood, with the simple addition of a bit of booze. Not liqueur chocolates, which are almost always disappointing. Not ice cream, onto which alcohol can be drizzled but it never works the way you want it to. You could sip amaretto on ice after dinner, but you don’t. It’s hard to get sweetness and alcohol exactly right. Usually people want their alcohol on the dry side, while dessert exists in a separate consumable universe. Not so for hot chocolate. Boozy Hot Chocolate is a whole other level, answering more cravings with a single sip (sweetness, richness, warmth, alcoholic) than anything else in the drinkosphere. Pretty much all the thrills of childhood are child-sized and left in the past where they belong, but come inside from a long cold winter walk to a steaming mug of well-made Boozy Hot Chocolate and tell me that you don’t feel 8 years old again.
Now, the whole idea of this article is that I’m teaching you how to make a Boozy Hot Chocolate, which admittedly is a little silly, considering you could add a few glugs of trash vodka to a microwaved mug of chocolate milk and it would still be pretty good. It’s a robust and durable template, one that practically begs for customization, and there’s no one best way to do it. Nonetheless, there are principles at play here to make it as good as it can be and they’re not necessarily obvious. So a few humble suggestions on ingredients and technique, to make your Holiday season just a little bit brighter. A present, say, to yourself.
Boozy Hot Chocolate
- 6 oz. milk/cream
- 45 g. semi-sweet chocolate chips (weight is a much more accurate measure in this instance)
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1.5 oz. spirit of your choice
Pre-warm your mug with some hot water. Add all ingredients (except alcohol) to a small saucepan over low heat and stir, taking care not to scald the milk. Empty the hot water from your mug and add 1.5 oz. alcohol. Once all the chocolate is dissolved and the temperature is where you want it (usually about 150 degrees—milk scalds at 170), pour hot chocolate into mug, stir briefly to combine and garnish with as many baby marshmallows as will fit.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Alcohol: This is the big question. As your faithful servant, I’ve spent the week spiking hot chocolate with pretty much every alcohol under the sun. The lessons have been myriad and fascinating. Vodka essentially disappears. Gin is weird—the pine-tree quality of the juniper reads a little like spearmint, which is cool, but then the other botanicals tend to screw with the palate. I really wanted bourbon and rye to work, but the oakiness fights the velvety richness you’re going for. Rum isn’t as great as you’d think—if using, select as dark and rich a rum as you have and deploy it sparingly. Tequila is shockingly good: Aged tequila (a reposado or añejo) is an incredible choice, but surprisingly, blanco works great too. The spirit is practically made for the chocolate. Also incredible is Irish Whiskey, or even a mild, unsmoked scotch.
The worst were smoky spirits. Smoky scotch like Lagavulin is a hard no, like a pour-down-the-drain-before-you-even-swallow no. I found mezcal to be better, but distracting.
And others. You can use creme de menthe for a brilliant twist—a drinkable Thin Mint—or Fernet Branca for the aggressive version of that. Green Chartreuse is the most mixology-like iteration I’ve ever had, herbal and weird but savagely delicious. Coffee liqueur, Fireball, something spiced like St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, it all works. Mix and match as you see fit. Fortune favors the bold.
Milk: This is the easiest choice, because you can use whatever you want. The classic choice is whole milk, which obviously works well. Half and half is a huge step up in terms of richness, quite a bit too much for me personally, but some minority of people seem to enjoy it. Use reduced fat if that’s your thing. Or oat/almond/cashew/soy/pea milk, if you like. The only thing to watch out for, in terms of balance, is that fat tends to absorb sweetness, so a perfect quantity of sweetness with whole milk will be too sweet with skim, because skim has less fat. Adjust accordingly.
Chocolate: Hot chocolate most frequently comes from a packet, and that’s ok if that’s what you have, but it really is worth the effort to make it yourself—if you’re going to have a treat, you should make it a treat. Cocoa powders can work and can be quite good, though they can lack a certain richness (you can make up for this with adding a little richer milk, if you find yourself missing it). You can even find competent chocolate syrups if you have a mind to, but in my experience, the best way is to use actual chocolate chips, or a bar cut up into chip-sized pieces.
You want dark chocolate, not milk chocolate (you’re adding the milk yourself). It will indicate a percentage on the front label, which is the amount of cocoa used (so a 60 percent dark chocolate will be 40 percent sugar, while an 80 percent dark chocolate will be 20 percent sugar). This matters not just in terms of quantity of sweetness but also the intensity of the chocolate flavor—my favorite is to use a dark chocolate somewhere in the 55 percent to 65 percent range, which will offer an intense chocolate flavor and dry finish.
Sugar: While dark chocolate has the flavor you’re looking for, but may not have the sweetness. In my favorite version, I find that I have to add a little supplemental sugar to get it where I want it. White sugar is great. Brown is good too, but unnecessary—it brings molasses flavors with it, which, unless you’re using rum as your base, tends to add more noise than signal. On some of my trials, I used white chocolate chips as supplemental sweetness. That works extremely well, but it’s not that different than just using sugar, so it’s great if you already have them around, but I wouldn’t tell you to buy a bag just for this.
The only thing to add in terms of balance is that, as with milk, sugar balances not only against richness but also against alcohol. Adding alcohol requires a touch more sweetness to balance it, just as drinking vermouth is quite sweet but adding a bunch of whiskey makes it a Manhattan. So, the lesson: A just-right Hot Chocolate may need a touch more sweetness when you add the alcohol, or else the booziness will overpower.
Other Ingredients: You can of course make something like a Mexican Hot Chocolate, with a couple sprinkles of ancho chili powder and/or cayenne (which is wonderful), but probably the most common adjuncts are cinnamon and a tiny touch of vanilla extract. This is personal taste territory, but for my recommendation, I only started preferring added spices when I was making it with vodka. Vodka on its own doesn’t have much of a presence, and the spices are fantastic for… well… spicing things up. When I get to the more flavorful spirits, I generally find those to be sufficient, but hey, you do you.