Valentine’s Day has a monopoly on the pre-diabetic market. It’s an unapologetic, candy-coated sugar fest. And it’s no different behind the bar, where holiday demand tends toward two things: sweet and pretty (preferably both). If it’s gold-flecked, strawberry-studded, pink, sparkling, or remotely chocolaty, it’s a Valentine’s-ready cocktail. But this year, we’re leaving sweet in the candy aisle and turning our attention to something a little more muscular. We’ve tasted cocktails that are robust, suave, and undeniably masculine (think Clark Gable meets John Wayne). And we think it’s high time the Valentine’s Day cocktail traded in the rose petal flourishes for a manly makeover.
What makes a cocktail manly? It could be vaguely violent, tattoo-ready names like “Hard Cocoa” or the naughty innuendo of “The Nooner”; it might be a persuasively heavy dose of strong spirits; and it almost always includes something bitter, dark, or bold—the cocktail equivalent of sex appeal by way of depth of flavor. Whatever their testosterone-induced origins, these masculine concoctions celebrate the big-shouldered, smoky, and seductive—with just the right hint of chocolate for the obligatory Valentine’s fix.
Co-owner and Mixologist Johnny Santiago of Jo’s – New York, NY
Step aside, Swiss Miss. We've got hot chocolate—with bitters. And booze. “Everyone wants a hot drink other than a hot toddy,” says Mixologist and Co-owner Johnny Santiago of Jo’s in New York. And even if his Hard Cocoa sounds like a prison-ready nickname, it’s really just Santiago’s toddy-free answer to the luxury of a warm, rich, boozy treat. Think of it as hot chocolate with muscles. But fear not—this potent take on the creamy classic has enough chocolate to satisfy the Valentine’s crowd: a 64% Extra Bitter Guayaquil dark chocolate base, in fact. A healthy dash of Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters and a few hard shakes of a cayenne-nutmeg blend bring out the chocolate’s spice, earth, and depth. But what really gives this drink its guts is the Macchu Pisco, round and warm in the mouth, a swoon-inducing, faintly earthy, 80-proof guarantee of a happy sweetheart.
Between the brandied cherries, Cherry Heering, and Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, Josh Pearson’s R and R Smash at Chicago’s Sepia has enough red stuff to make the Valentine’s cut. But what makes it an ideal romantic elixir is the balance of sweet and bitter, bright and dark (meaning it’s the good listener of the manly cocktail category). The drink “has a flavor aspect that appeals to both men and women,” says Pearson, assuming women tend to seek out sweeter, lighter, fussier drinks, while men worship at the pared-down altar of dark spirits and bitters. And here’s Pearson’s compromise: a generous, single malt backbone of Templeton Rye whiskey and the mosaic flavors (bitter orange, fig, toffee, etc.) of sweet red vermouth give the drink the strong-jawed structure of a “guy’s drink”; brandied cherries, a ruby red dose of Cherry Heering, and rosemary garnish appeal to the gals—chivalry in a glass.
Mixologist Benjamin Schiller of Boka – Chicago, IL
The inspiration for Old Money, says Chicago restaurant Boka’s Benjamin Schiller, came from “an image of gentlemen retiring to an old, wood-paneled parlor for drinks and cigars. The cocktail,” he says, “was meant to be masculine, firm, and full of depth of flavor.” With this old-school patriarchal elegance in mind, Schiller built a cocktail that manages to be both masculine and sexy without any of the attendant parlor-room stuffiness. The drink works in progression; it starts with a complex nose—subtle orange oil intermingles with the gentian, rhubarb flavors of Aperol. The Aperol follows up with its bitter-sweetness on the tongue, “a precursor,” says Schiller, “to the rich, full bodied bourbon.” Walnut liqueur and allspice dram come in subtly on the finish. This isn’t just a man’s cocktail: it’s a gentleman’s cocktail (no top hat required).
Mixologist Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge – Houston, TX
Bobby Heugel’s Black Betty at Anvil is satisfyingly rough hewn—carved from heady stuff, and it’s no mistake. “We like to confront people with new flavors,” says Heugel, who collaborated with fellow Anvil mixo Matt Tanner in creating the drink. They were looking for a way to use some fenugreek-infused rye, and the resulting drink is dashingly tall, dark, and handsome. “It’s just really focusing on flavors that add depth,” Heugel explains, “using things like fenugreek and chocolate mole bitters” to play against the higher-proof rye “as opposed to what really seems popular right now, which is a lot of bitters and medicinal stuff.” Heugel isn’t anti-bitters; he’s got two in this recipe, upping the earthy ante with the bark-and-spice of the Luxardo bitters. The result has what Heugel calls “noticeable depth,” making it the kind of drink loner, Clint Eastwood types could really brood over.
Mixologist Charles Joly of The Drawing Room – Chicago, IL
Charles Joly’s The Nooner at The Drawing Room in Chicago is a man’s drink in a woman’s cup. Seriously. “It’s a glass shaped like a woman’s breast,” says Joly. “What guy wouldn’t like that?” Anatomical similitude aside, the drink itself does most of the seduction. “It’s about deconstructing the individual flavors of the bourbon,” says Joly. “You would taste the spice, the vanilla, the maple.” The vanilla sings out, courtesy of a dose of Navan, a vanilla-infused cognac under the Grand Marnier umbrella. Joly adds just enough maple syrup to amplify, rather than eclipse, the natural woodsy sweetness of the Maker’s Mark. Fresh ginger and orange bitters provide top and bottom notes for a complete, sultry package. As for the name, “it kind of alludes to the time of the day that the cocktail was inspired”—a fortuitous splash of maple syrup from his pancakes one fateful brunch—“but it’s also a little tongue in cheek,” says Joly. “Some names have a little innuendo to them.” And where innuendo ends, suggestive glassware finishes the job.