Like most things sinful, strong, and drinks-related, hotel (or flask, or, most accurately, room temperature) cocktails have mired history. Boozy, iceless concoctions often consumed by traveling bartenders, room temperature cocktails have roots in everything from modern “go cup” Nola Street drinking to pre-ice cocktail culture (the Kold Draft and Scotsman-free dark ages before “Ice King” Frederic Tudor inaugurated commercialization of the cold stuff). Having taken more than a few room temperature sips for ourselves, we haven’t found a single seed at the root of the resurgence of the iceless cocktail. Instead, and like most mixological phenomena, it seems to be the step-child of several cocktail themes, belonging entirely to none.
Chris Hannah's The Rebennack Rye Whiskey, Averna, and Creole Shrubb
“Originally for me, they were flask cocktails,” says Chris Hannah, tuxedoed barman at New Orleans’ Arnaud’s French 75, whose iceless “The Rebennack" tarts up rye whiskey and Averna with a dose of Creole Shrubb. “Next I hear they’re called hotel cocktails—and this stems from what bartenders carry to hotels on our cocktail events.” Hannah here refers to the practice (or inevitability) of bartenders gathering and mixing over the course of mixology happenings—none so grand as Tales of the Cocktail. “We bring all of our checked liquor to a room and make do with what we [have].”
The Hotel Room Temp in a plastic cup at Cure - New Orleans, LA
Sounds simple (sinful?) enough. But just over on Freret Street, beta cocktails coauthor and Cure barman Kirk Estopinal serves a drink called the “Hotel Room Temp" that’s actually not an homage to the hotel mixing phenomenon. Instead, it pays respect to another cocktail, a motel cocktail, the “Days Inn Daiquiri,” created by vacationing fellow mixo Kyle Davidson of The Violet Hour. Unlike your typical good-times daiquiri, Estopinal says his cocktail is “the finale drink in a hopelessly depressed outlook on love,” adding “maybe there’s a philosophy for room temperature cocktails in there—as if room temperature drinks are the desperate alcoholic affairs signaling the end of a party.”
Estopinal’s guess might have a depressingly “desperate times” connotation, but according to at least one cocktail family tree, he’s not far off. At a recent mixology conference, Hannah heard Alconomics guru Angus Winchester (“he gives the very best cocktail seminars in the industry, period”) relate room temperature cocktail to the Scaffa, a historic cocktail category that’s variously qualified as being a pousse-café type mixture of “brandy, maraschino, and/or another liqueur” (Dave Wondrich), or a boozy, layered cocktail crafted with a “’whatever’s in the cupboard’” mentality (Winchester). In the latter definition, the Scaffa is the drinkable lovechild of thirst, empty cabinets, and ingenuity. And while it’s nowhere defined as being strictly iceless (except for Jerry Thomas’s “Brandy Scaffa,” Wondrich notes), the resourceful creativity of the Scaffa does seem to square with the thrown-together magic of the room temperature cocktail.
Maks Pazuniak flames an orange for The Charlatan at The Counting Room - Brooklyn, NY
And then, of course, there are scattered hints that the room temperature cocktail was something else, to someone else, sometime in the past. At Brooklyn’s The Counting Room, Cure alum and fellow beta cocktails man Maks Pazuniak says he “had an elderly gentleman once ask me for something he called an ‘Evening Cocktail.’ I asked ‘What does that mean? Do you want something neat?’ He says ‘No, a cocktail. No ice.’ I assume he wanted it up. I started adding ice to my mixing glass and he stopped me. ‘No ice at all.’” Pazuniak, who’d only tasted his first room temperature cocktail a couple years before, answered the request with the silk and structure of an ice-free “Charlatan” (and never heard the name ‘evening cocktail’ again).
Bobby Heugel's The Brave at Anvil Bar & Refuge - Houston, TX
But as any good mixologist—or dedicated drinker—knows, the success of a cocktail has much less to do with the name than what’s in the glass, or, in the case of the room temperature cocktail, what’s not in the glass. In an age where Jerry Thomas’s prescribed cube, cracked, shaved, and block ice styles have evolved into a kind of hyper-particular ice purism, the total absence of ice, in both prep and service, makes for a strangely refreshing cocktail experience. Pazuniak got his first ice-free sip courtesy of 2011 Houston Rising Star Bobby Heugel, who served him his favorite (and Anvil’s only cocktail mainstay) “The Brave”. “It contradicts people’s expectations of what a drink should be,” says Heugel. “But we do it on purpose.”
Heugel isn’t just messing with his patrons. Room temperature cocktails have more aromatic volatility than the chilled alternative (for certifiable in-depth analysis, check out Taste Buds and Molecules by taste guru Francois Chartier). Just like wine, when a spirit or concoction is warmer, its volatile aromatic compounds escape more easily, meaning the Chichicapa Mezcal and Averna Amaro can show more of their herbaceous, fruit, and/or smoky notes in “The Brave” than they might in a cold cocktail. The trick for any mixologist going ice-free is playing around.
And that might be what sparked renewed interest in the room temperature cocktail. “It’s an experiment,” says Estopinal, who says he first heard about iceless cocktails “in the hushed conversations of serious bartenders about 'where it’s all going.'” In theory, the room temperature context allows masters of the craft (with a penchant to play) to manipulate the sensory experience of a cocktail in new ways.
Among the options? Temperature (though only a very small gradient, lest the "room" part be rendered meaningless). “Some people are shooting for 58 to 65°F, ambient room temperature, in order to make the drink better, more or less aromatic,” says Estopinal. No doubt the specificity of only a few degrees of experimental wiggle room attracts some of the more meticulous mixologists.
Another key factor in the aromatics: dilution. “Some people will tell you [room temperature cocktails] should be diluted, and others say they shouldn’t,” says Pazuniak. Not adding water makes for a more potent concoction, but as any Scotch drinker knows, water can also open up or soften the aromatics of a spirit—a rough equivalent to instant decanting (though technically speaking, water reacts with starch, its presence in a spirit or cocktail can alter the aromatic dynamic). In a recipe for one of his room temperature cocktails, Alchemy Consulting’s Troy Sidle proposes a compromise: add “just enough water to remove the burn of the bourbon but not too much to needlessly dilute it.”
And with those two factors, obviously, comes the booze itself. While iced cocktails can rely on dilution and temperature to impact alcohol and body, room temp varieties rely entirely on balanced mixing. Flavor-forward concoctions that they are, it's no surprise that most of the room temperature cocktails we tasted had richer bases like vermouth, American rye whiskey, and rum, with accents veering toward the darker end of the spectrum: spicy bitters, curacao, liqueur, amari, etc. Even Heugel's clear-spirits abberration (the agave-phile went Texan with mezcal and tequila) finishes dark, thanks to Averna amaro, Grand Marnier, and Angostura. We have yet to encounter any citrus in a room temperature cocktail, but Pazuniak tells us he's mulling over some ideas.
Whatever it’s called, and however it’s served (we’ve had it in plastic cups, rocks glasses, and wine glasses), the end result of all this playing around is a rich, potent cocktail that seems more suited to educated sipping than cocktail happy hour—hence the industry-only culture. And if and when room temperature cocktails are served outside of bartender-and-booze-packed hotel rooms—“my guess is they’ll get on menus,” says Arnaud—the key is keeping patrons apprised not only of their unusual temperature, but their special potency. As for the name? Call them what you want. Just hold the ice.