Drinks served without ice are quietly reappearing at some cocktail bars. But is there a compelling reason for them to exist?
For example, Jim Kearns—bar director of New York's The Happiest Hour and subterranean bar within a bar Slowly Shirley—has devoted an entire category of room temperature spirit-forward nightcaps to the Slowly Shirley menu, like the Stop, You’re Scaring Me (Zacapa rum, Averna and Aperol) and Harvest Moon (Laird’s Applejack, Half Moon gin, Pommeau, manzanilla sherry and cinnamon bark syrup).
"They are great for showing off the nuanced flavors and aromas of whiskey," Kearns explains, suggesting that these drinks could appeal to whiskey connoisseurs who may be accustomed to drinking spirits neat and un-chilled.
He’s not the only one making drinks fit for the pre-electric refrigerator era. In Nashville, Strategic Hospitality’s Beverage Director Matt Tocco (Le Sel, Pinewood Social, The Patterson House) is working on a brown butter-washed rum and vermouth drink, the Buttered Rum Manhattan, that’s intended to be made and served at room temperature as a kind of no-fuss holiday cocktail option. The "room temperature nightcap" category also will be highlighted at a bartender cocktail competition at New York's Dear Irving on November 30.
"Not using any dilution or chill to alter the ingredients really makes you focus on the ingredients and the ratios."
For his room temperature drinks, Kearns cites a mid 1800s drink style called the Scaffa. In the updated edition of Imbibe!, author and cocktail historian Dave Wondrich describes a Scaffa as "an iceless assemblage of wines and spirits briefly popular in the middle of the [19th] century." (No wonder they were popular: at this point, ice still was harvested from frozen lakes in giant blocks and transported at considerable expense.)
"There's a debate as to whether 'scaffa' comes from an old Italian word meaning 'cupboard,' meaning using whatever ingredients you had handy in the cupboard or whether it is the creator's family name," Kearns notes. Traditionally, these drinks omitted water; Kearns adds water to his drinks, approximating the effect melted ice would have in diluting the finished drink.
This isn’t the first time that the Scaffa has inspired a room-temp revolution. Indeed, most modern bar-goers probably first became aware of "room temperature cocktails" thanks to a slender but influential book called beta cocktails., self-published by bartenders Kirk Estopinal and Maksym Pazuniak in 2011, as well as its even more limited-edition predecessor Rogue Cocktails, self-published in 2009. Both books focus on boozy, bitter, spirit-forward drinks sourced from bartenders—including a handful of cocktails deliberately made without ice.
Most notable is the "Hotel Room Temperature" drink, created by Estopinal, made with an ounce and a half of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, plus smaller measures of aged rum and orange Curaçao, and dashes of Bittermens Mole bitters and salt tincture. "Build in a rocks glass, no ice," the instructions read.
The drink is "an exercise in texture," explained Estopinal in the notes for the drink, "and the fact that assembly can and does adjust the entire profile of the same ingredients."
The Infernal Architect (Laird’s Applejack, Nardini Amaro, Strega, built in a coupe rinsed with allspice dram), also in the book, is a drink created by Philadelphia-based bartender Colin Shearn. "This is a room temperature cocktail," the instructions specify, lest there be any ambiguity. And just a couple of pages later, there’s Misty Kalkofen’s Pare de Sufrir, a strong, stirred libation combining PX sherry, Chichicapa mezcal, coffee liqueur and Amaro Lucano, served in an espresso cup. No ice; served at room temperature. Troy Sidle’s Heart of Glass, with bourbon, sweet vermouth and Cynar calls for no ice, too.
The Scaffa provided inspiration here as well, Shearn recalls, particularly a variation called the Brandy Scaffa, which appears in Jerry Thomas’s 1860s The Bartender's Guide, and other subsequent Golden Age bartending books.
"They are intriguing drinks," Shearn insists. "Not using any dilution or chill to alter the ingredients really makes you focus on the ingredients and the ratios. There's nothing else to hide behind." Comparing the Scaffa to a chilled drink like the Old Fashioned, he continues, is "like sashimi compared sushi rolls."
But that was several years ago. When every high-end bar now has a cutting-edge "ice program," do room temperatures drinks make sense?
The only way to decide was to road test a room temperature drink, side by side with a chilled variation—same ingredients, stirred with ice and strained into a freezer-chilled glass. (In this case, an adaptation of the Hotel Room Temperature: 1 ½ ounces sweet vermouth, ¾ ounce aged rum, ¼ ounce orange Curaçao, and 2 dashes of mole bitters).
There was definitely a noticeable difference between the two: the room temperature variation read as sweeter, richer, slightly more viscous, and had a slightly longer finish. By comparison, the chilled drink was more refreshing, and a pleasing, raisin-y note from the vermouth was coaxed forward.
Bartenders may praise room temperature drinks for increased aromatics or intriguingly rich texture; but by the end of this experiment, the chilled glass was the one left empty.