Food + Drink

What Makes a Cocktail a Nightcap?

A nightcap is the perfect way to end the night, and author Kara Newman knows just how to make them. Her book Nightcap features more than 40 cocktail recipes—some to keep the night going, some that will help ease you to sleep, some that can double as dessert, and some that can soothe the stomach after a hearty meal.

Nightcap by Kara Newman

There are classics like the sweet and creamy Brandy Alexander, new takes on old favorites like the Black Manhattan, which swaps an aperitif for the classic vermouth, and simple new ideas like the Open & Shut, which combines equal parts amaro and cognac for a slow sipper. 

Here, she explores the question at the forefront of our minds: what makes a cocktail a nightcap?


What Makes a Cocktail a Nightcap?

This is hard for me to admit, but when it comes to the end-of-night drink known as the “nightcap,” the drink itself is actually the least important part of the ritual.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a good drink, or better still, a great one. But think for a moment about what you’re really saying when you ask, “How about a nightcap?”

The underlying message is: I’m not quite ready for the evening to end. Let’s prolong this lively conversation, this dazzling meal. One more dance. One more drink. Don’t go home yet, come up to my place. The clock might say bedtime, but I’m not ready to sleep. Here’s a calming pour to quiet the mind. Maybe the evening is ending soon. But not yet.

Nightcap by Kara Newman

With all of these situations (and others) in mind, how to define the nightcap cocktail? The truth is, the drink spans a wide range—and that’s perfectly fine.

In trying to unravel the modern-day nightcap, one of my first stops was a chat with Natasha David, proprietor of New York bar Nitecap, who developed her entire menu around the construct. “The nightcap is an intensely personal beverage,” she explains. “It has to be what makes you happy at the end of the day. It’s so much about your personal state of mind at that moment.”

Right there is the problem in trying to define the nightcap: It’s not exactly a category, like the aperitivo, or a style, like the Martini. It’s more about the timing of the drink, and the context that surrounds it. As David sums it up: it’s personal.

The origin of the word clearly points to nighttime: “nightcap” as trusty hat to keep one’s noggin warm during sleeping long pre-dates “nightcap” as boozy bed-timer. The earliest definition I found is in Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett, 1848: “A glass of hot toddy or gin-sling taken before bed at night. When a second glass is taken, it is called ‘a string to tie it with.’

The word had been in use for some time before then, and it wasn’t strictly an “Americanism,” either. A slim book called Oxford Night Caps: Being a Collection of Receipts for Making Various Beverages Used in the University was first published in 1835, referring to England’s Oxford University.

Nightcap by Kara Newman

Today, there’s no shortage of nightcap-worthy cocktails, or bartenders who know how to showcase them to best advantage. Still, the definition remains fluid.

To Jess Lambert, who put together a “Before Bed” cocktail menu for Chicago bar Boleo, the role of a nightcap is “to ramp up your evening if you’re going to stay and dance and hang out.” In other words, it’s a signal that the evening isn’t quite over.

Meanwhile, Charles Joly, also a Chicago-area bartender, says that when he’s made nightcaps, they’re intended as “night closures”—the polar opposite of the bracing “eye-opener” drink.

Still others consider the nightcap as a boozy way to wind down a meal—which may or may not mean the end of your night. It’s not a coincidence that a growing number of restaurants include “after dinner” sections in cocktail menus, as well as spirits lists tucked into dessert menus. Some people are looking for a calming digestivo; others are seeking one last decadent indulgence.

“When I think of a nightcap, I think of something a touch more sweet or a touch more bitter,” explains Beau Williams, owner of Kansas City’s Julep. “Maybe something dessert-y, instead of dessert.” That might take the form of an amaro or a creamy, comforting cocktail in place of that monster slice of cake beckoning from the dessert tray.

Nightcap by Kara Newman

In writing Nightcap, I’ve tried to keep all of these definitions—and others—in mind, and the chapters ahead reflect some of the many roles a nightcap can play: the wind-down, the conversation-lengthener, the stomach-soother. There’s no single definition, and that’s part of what makes it so intriguing. And since it’s meant to be the last drink of the night, all these recipes make a single drink—unless otherwise noted.

However, I did find one other universal quality that bartenders agree upon: that end-of-the-night drink is generally just that—a final punctuation of some sort. Yet whether that means a hit-the-hay full stop, a party-on exclamation point, or even a sensuous question mark about where the evening is headed, exactly—that part is up to you.

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You can order your copy of Nightcap here, and explore Kara Newman’s other cocktail books: Shake. Stir. Sip. and Cocktails for a Crowd.

Cocktail photos by Antonis Achilleos, book photos by Michelle Park

Kara Newman

Kara Newman is the spirits editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine and the author of Nightcap, Shake. Stir. Sip, and Cocktails for a Crowd. She lives in New York City.
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