What’s in a night­cap? Any­thing that tick­les your taste buds

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Nutrition - Robert Si­mon­son

When drinks writer Kara New­man be­gan work on her new book, Night­cap, she first had to ad­dress a cen­tral is­sue: just what ex­actly is a night­cap?

On the face of it, the an­swer seems sim­ple – a night­cap is that fi­nal drink of the evening. It caps the night, and com­forts like the night­caps that sleep­ers wore back in the 19th cen­tury when the cus­tom took hold.

But that ex­plains only the tim­ing. What type of drink should it be? Can any­thing be a night­cap? The more ques­tions New­man asked of bar­tenders, the less cer­tain she felt.

“No one ever said, ‘This isn’t a night­cap,’” she re­called. “Ev­ery­one is open to what­ever it can be.”

She was able to es­tab­lish at least one solid rule. “Ev­ery­one I talked to says, ‘There is no ‘s’ in night­cap’.” (That is, you should have only one night­cap per night.)

New­man does not be­lieve that to­day’s drinkers think much in terms of night­caps – it was partly for that rea­son that she thought it would be an in­ter­est­ing school of drink to ex­am­ine. “It just seems like an un­sung cat­e­gory,” she said.

She does, how­ever, ac­knowl­edge that there is a pop­u­lar pub­lic im­age of the night­cap as a strong drink, which typ­i­cally in­volves a brown spirit like brandy, whiskey, rum or amaro.

“They’re just warm­ing spir­its and have these dessert­like flavours, caramel and vanilla and spice,” says New­man, the spir­its ed­i­tor at Wine En­thu­si­ast. “It’s com­fort­ing and pleas­ing and calm­ing. And, per­son­ally, I think it’s some­thing that is hard to drink quickly.”

Still, she is not op­posed to a glass of smoky mez­cal (a spirit made from the agave plant), if that’s what some­one prefers. And the Ne­groni, an aper­i­tif cock­tail typ­i­cally drunk at the start of a night or be­fore a meal, is also fair game in her opin­ion.

What a night­cap is meant to ac­com­plish is an equally com­plex ques­tion. It is not just about end­ing

the evening; it’s more about how you want the evening to end. So she has di­vided the recipes in the book into four cat­e­gories: “To Send You Off to Sleep” which in­cludes lighter drinks us­ing for­ti­fied wines and ver­mouth; “To Keep the Con­ver­sa­tion Go­ing” is com­posed of more strongly spir­ited cock­tails; “To Aid Di­ges­tion” are drinks that con­tain stom­ach-set­tling amari; and “To Sweeten the Deal” are dessert drinks like the grasshop­per and the brandy Alexan­der.

But some­times an in­ten­tion is all that it takes for a drink to be crowned a night­cap.

Although New­man says she doesn’t think a shooter could ever be a night­cap, she breaks that rule in her book by in­clud­ing Pa­per Plane Shots. The recipe takes the Pa­per Plane, a mod­ern clas­sic cock­tail (bour­bon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino and le­mon juice), and di­vides it into four one-ounce shot glasses.

She watched one night as a bar­tender served it as a cus­tomer send-off. “It vi­o­lates all the rules. It’s a sour. It has an aper­i­tivo in it. It’s a shot.”

But the night­cap, she ex­plains, isn’t so much a cat­e­gory as an oc­ca­sion. “Here you had four peo­ple. They toasted one an­other, had this civilised mo­ment and went on their merry way. It felt like a punc­tu­a­tion.”

Kara New­man: “Ev­ery­one I talked to says, ‘There is no ‘s’ in night­cap’.”

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