As I write this, the Washington area is getting its first legitimate snow of the season. Gusts of pale confetti drift past my window, and the substantial part of me that is still 12 years old longs for all the winters when I would head out with a squad of fellow rapscallions, plastic toboggans behind us, to take on the wonderfully steep hill that was part of the schoolyard behind our old house. There was a creek at the bottom, and more than once, we would misjudge the speed of our sleds and go rocketing past the tree line, over the bank and into the shallow water below. What seems really cool when you’re 12 sounds pretty stupid just a few years later, whenever school gets around to making you read “Ethan Frome.”

It seems different yet again when you’re an adult stuck in the middle of a pandemic, remembering how you once watched your own breath visibly mix and mingle in the frigid air with those of your sledding friends.

Sigh.

Largely homebound, unlikely to be around any large particle-panting groups of people for the foreseeable future, I am grateful that at least one winter pleasure — hot chocolate — remains, and that my accumulated years mean that I can bump its decadence up with a boost of booze while I sit with my melancholy and watch the snow. As the typically chocolate-laden Valentine’s Day approaches, boozy hot chocolate for two seems like just the ticket. (Even if there’s only one of you. You can have seconds. It’s not like you’re driving anywhere.)

What I want in hot chocolate doesn’t change much when I make it boozy: I want rich, chocolate flavor and just enough sweetness to enhance it. I don’t mind if other flavors come into play, but I don’t want them overwhelming the chocolate itself.

I played around with types of chocolate and alcohol in devising this simple template and concluded that using liqueur generally resulted in a drink that wasn’t just overly sweet, but that also didn’t have the desired double-warmer effect of a hot drink with booze. In some cases, a generous pour of flavored liqueur took too much attention away from the chocolate. A ratio of half spirit, half liqueur worked well, resulting in a deep, rich chocolate drink, noticeable internal warmth and the right amount of contrasting flavor from the chosen liqueur.

Keep in mind that if you’re mixing up a batch for two but just one of you is drinking (or if one of you is 12 and coming in from an attempt at masked pandemic sledding), it’s easy to ladle off a non-boozy portion of the mixture midway through.

Select your spirit: The spirits I found worked best were those that had spent some time in the barrel; the vanilla and caramel notes they pick up from the wood complement the chocolate nicely. They have a richness and complexity that you’re not going to get from vodka. But if you just want that internal warming factor, vodka will work as the base for any of these — you do you.

Choose the right chocolate: Powdered hot chocolate mixtures are not what you want here; they have too much sugar. Instead, you should look for something dark and decadent. I tried a range of meltable chocolate options, but my favorite results came with extra-dark chocolate — specifically, Guittard’s Extra Dark Chocolate Baking Chips. Semisweet chips are a good backup option, while milk chocolate might taste cloying (remember, you’re still going to add a dose of liqueur that will also contribute sweetness).

Mind the heat: When prepping the base, keep the heat low and whisk gently as the drink warms — without scorching your dairy. Once the milk and chocolate have fully combined and are ready for alcohol, you can raise the heat a bit, but continue to gently whisk as you go and don’t let the mixture come to a boil.

Consider non-boozy flavor boosts: This is a flexible drink template, and there are plenty of tweaks you can make while hot chocolate is warming. Along with the alcoholic adulterations, I threw a teaspoon of espresso powder into one batch, a few strips of orange peel in another. In the variation with cinnamon whiskey, I added a grating of nutmeg and some pods of cardamom; to the version with orange liqueur, I dropped in a snipping of dried ancho chile and a smidgen of chipotle powder. The intense flavors and aromas of cocktail bitters are good to play with here as well; Angostura has baking spice notes that will go beautifully in several of these drinks, orange bitters can add brightness to a chocolate coffee combination, and so on. You’re really limited only by your imagination and your palate.

Garnish with glee: I’ll admit to occasionally garnishing a drink with something just because it’s pretty or funny. But really, garnishes should primarily be about enhancing the flavors and aromas of the drink. With an adult hot chocolate, it’s hard to go wrong with whipped cream, especially if you pep it up a little with some spice or a hint of the same (or complementary) flavors in the drink. Once you’ve got a nice floof of cream, grate some nutmeg or orange zest over it, or shave some chocolate on top. Plus, a single upside of the social distancing thing: No one’s around to judge you if you want to throw some mini-marshmallows on top of a hot chocolate that incorporates a VSOP cognac.


Ingredients

  • Hot water, for filling mugs
  • 2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk (may substitute plant-based milk)
  • 3 ounces dark chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large pinch salt
  • 2 ounces dark rum or another spirit (see NOTE)
  • 2 ounces coffee liqueur, or another liqueur (see NOTE)
  • Whipped cream, marshmallows, chocolate shavings, orange zest and/or grating of nutmeg/cinnamon, for garnish (optional)

Step 1

Fill two mugs with hot water and set aside while you make the cocoa.

In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk, chocolate, vanilla and salt, whisking until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth and uniform.

Step 2

Add the rum and coffee liqueur, and stir to combine. Continue to stir until the mixture is fully heated — don’t let it come to a boil.


Step 3

Discard the hot water in the mugs, ladle the mixture into your mugs and garnish as you like.

NOTE: Other good combinations using rum: 2 ounces rum, 1 ounce coffee liqueur and 1 ounce orange liqueur; or 2 ounces rum, 1 ounce coffee liqueur and 1 ounce nut liqueur.

VARIATIONS:

Follow the recipe as written above up until adding alcohol. See below for suggested variations.

Variation 1: Chocolate and spice

Add 2 ounces dark rum or aged tequila and 2 ounces cinnamon whiskey, and stir to combine. (Other good combinations: 2 ounces dark rum or aged tequila with 1 ounce each cinnamon whiskey and ginger liqueur; 2 ounces dark rum or aged tequila and 1 ounce each cinnamon whiskey and chile liqueur.)

Variation 2: Chocolate and orange

Add 2 ounces brandy and 2 ounces orange liqueur, and stir to combine. (Other good combinations: 2 ounces brandy, 1 ounce orange liqueur and 1 ounce coffee liqueur; 2 ounces brandy, 1 ounce orange liqueur and 1 ounce chile liqueur.)

Variation 3: Chocolate and other fruits

Add 2 ounces brandy or rum, and 2 ounces another fruit liqueur, and stir to combine. (Brandy goes well with raspberry or cherry liqueur. You can even try an eau de vie, an unaged brandy made with the same fruit as the liqueur. Rum goes beautifully with banana or coconut liqueur.)

Nutrition Information

Calories: 521; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Cholesterol: 20 mg; Sodium: 201 mg; Carbohydrates: 49 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 29 g; Protein: 13 g.


Recipes from Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

Tested by M. Carrie Allan.

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