I've lost track of time since I moved to California, because there aren't many seasonal cues. When I moved west from New York, packing my puffer coat away in the back corner of a closet, someone mentioned that February tends to be "a pretty nice month." I think I snorted, that idea was so foreign. While my childhood costumes had to fit turtlenecks underneath back East, we keep getting invited to sunny Halloween picnics in the park here. A few friends have started a tradition of marking the warmest days of summer—which usually happen in late September or early October—by staying outside and getting sunburned and tipsy at the local oyster farm. One yearly oyster-filled afternoon blurs into another. My husband and I have both left the jobs we've held for years, we've had a child, and I've nearly finished writing my first book. I'm not 30 anymore, but I have to actually count to figure out how many years have gone by. A life without winters does that to you.
I'm ok leaving that down jacket in the closet, but these days I find myself craving the rituals of winter. In the dark early evenings of December, carols piped from storefronts and twinkly lights in bay windows lift my spirits; a cool, windy day has me lighting a fire and tucking my knees and toes under a blanket, hot beverage in hand.
This one, adapted from a recipe by Shige Kabashima of ROKC in New York, is both a little nostalgic and a little trendy, and maybe those two things almost balance each other out. I'm not sure if it matters. I just know that it's tasty and comforting. The steam from cider and bourbon together gives the drink some spice; each sip is a thermal blanket for your lungs. But there's more, of course; the bourbon is flavored with caramel popcorn, giving the combination a rich, toasty note and a hit of butter that you back up by floating a little pat of butter in each mug. (Hey, they do it with rum all the time.)
Infusions can sounds fussy, but the process is really simple. You find some caramel popcorn, any brand that you like to eat. (I used 479 ° Sea Salt Caramel, which worked just fine. Kabashima recommends Garrett.) Equal parts popcorn and bourbon go in a saucepan, and you warm it gently, being careful not to let it boil down. Kabashima clarifies the popcorn-bourbon by freezing it overnight, then skimming off any fat that's separated out. Since we're going for a rich drink and we're even going to be adding a little butter in the end, I'm fine with skipping that fuss, and just using the strained bourbon straightaway.
If you have a microwave, the easiest way to finish up the drink is to warm some cider in a mug, add your flavored bourbon, top with a touch of butter, and start sipping. If you'd prefer to go analog, just heat the cider on the stovetop (this is handy if you're serving a crowd) and preheat some mugs by filling them with boiling water. When you're ready to go, dump the water and add the measured cider, bourbon, and butter.
Each sip makes you feel a little warmer, in whatever way you need.