“What exactly is a nightcap, anyway?’

As the author of a new book on the topic, I get asked this all the time. My standard response is that it’s your last drink of the evening — it’s the pour that caps off your night.

But that’s a little flip. The longer answer is to first explain what a nightcap isn’t.

It isn’t an aperitivo, designed to rev up your appetite for a meal; it isn’t a drink that’s overly stimulating, which is why I usually put perky gin martinis in the “not-a-nightcap column”; it isn’t a drink that’s too fussy and distracting. And it sure isn’t multiple drinks — that’s called having another round, not a singular, final nightcap.

A proper nightcap can be a cocktail or straight pour of a spirit. But beyond that, what you’re drinking isn’t the point. As I found by talking with bartenders, the nightcap is defined by when you’re drinking it — end of night, of course (although I have a friend who argues in favor of the prenap “afternoon-cap”) as well as how and why and, sometimes, where you’re enjoying it.

“I think there are a few different reasons someone would enjoy a nightcap,” says Ryan Lotz, proprietor of newly opened Boston tiki bar Shore Leave, who favors a funky, complex aged rum as his nightcap. “Basically, you’re looking to finish off your evening and it’s an excuse to have one more drink. I think that ‘one more’ can be something on the stronger side to send you off to sleep. It can be something low-alcohol and easy if you’re looking to have one more and extend some time spent with friends, or it can be something sweet to punctuate your progression of drinks.”

Notice what’s missing from that rundown? The tired wink-wink trope that the point of a nightcap is to lure the object of one’s affection back to the boudoir. “Hey baby, ya wanna come up to my place for a nightcap?” That’s not the role of the modern nightcap, at least not in the age of Tinder and the like.

These days, the role of the nightcap is more akin to self-care, say bar pros such as Amie Ward, beverage director at Baltimore’s R.Bar.

“For me, having a nightcap is something of a ritual, signifying the close of a very long day,” Ward says. “My perfect nightcap is dry and astringent, either a pour of amaro or rye whiskey. A two-ounce pour is all I need to unwind and put the day to rest.”

For others, that last drink marks a transition between on- and off-duty. Natasha David, proprietor of Nitecap gave her bar that name because she “wanted it to be a bartender’s bar, the bar you go to at the end of your shift. It’s your last drink.”

She adds: “I wanted the bar to be a place where you could come and forget about the rest of the day, be transported, have a little treat.”

Although Nitecap also offers plenty of aperitivo-style drinks (such as appetite-inducing spritzes), the cocktail menu features a strong roster of closers. It’s a way to ease into rest and relaxation, even though you may not be quite ready for lights out yet.

“We’ve always made the nightcap decadent, indulgent,” David says. “It doesn’t have to have cream, but it often has a component that’s rich or velvety. Maybe it’s brandy-based or citrus-based, but mixed in with cacao. There’s always something a little naughty about the drinks.”

After all, the point of a nightcap is to recount your evening and relax, says Shannon Ponche, head bartender at Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York.

“If you’re not quite ready for bed and over the party, a nightcap is what you need. … You shouldn’t have to think too hard to pour or order one,” Ponche says. Her go-to drinks: a mezcal at home or a boulevardier at her local bar on the corner. Either way, she says, a nightcap is best enjoyed in a place where you’re most comfortable.

At this point, most of us are in the mind-set that we survived the holiday season, or at least the day. There’s little agreement as to what an ideal end-of-night drink should be — frankly, I contend there’s room for the low-alcohol and no-alcohol nightcap, where it’s more about the ritual and the company than the booze. We’re never all going to agree about politics or anything else dominating headlines. But if there’s one thing we can agree upon, it’s that we all deserve to chill with a nightcap. Here’s two:

Coperta Da Sci

The name translates to “ski lodge blanket,” says Kellie Thorn, of Empire State South in Birmingham, Alabama, who created the drink. Calvados, the famed apple brandy of Normandy, creates a rich, round backdrop, while the alpine notes of Braulio amaro really pop.

Ingredients: About 20 milliliters each of apple brandy, Braulio amaro, Cocchi vermouth di Torino (or sweet vermouth); 7 milliliters of creme de cacao; some orange peel, for garnish.

In a mixing glass, stir the brandy, amaro, vermouth, and creme de cacao together with ice. Strain into a small, chilled cocktail glass or brandy tulip. Twist the orange peel over the top of the drink to express the oils. Garnish with the peel.

Snake Oil

“This (was) our house nightcap,” says Benjamin Krick, who created this for Juniper Tar, a San Antonio bar that has since closed. “It’s a little edgy,” he warns.

Ingredients: 60 milliliters of bonded (100-proof) bourbon; 15 milliliters of sherry; 1 minibottle (0.67 oz.) Underberg bitters. In a mixing glass, stir all the ingredients together with ice. Strain into a Nick & Nora glass. Serve with no garnish

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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