For Irish Coffee With a Bittersweet Note, Add a Double Dose of Amaro

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

People who know me well know that I spent my college years singing in arches. Not the Golden Arches—the arches of the dormitories and various office buildings of the university that I had, in fact, selected for this very purpose. There were plenty of other reasons to go, sure, but I'd visited and seen students singing in these windy spots with great acoustics, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I wanted in on the fine tradition of gathering together to freeze your butt off in the name of a cappella music.

We sang perky arrangements of Beatles tunes and a few jazz standards, plus occasional heart-tuggingly beautiful takes on pop songs that some of you young whippersnappers may remember from junior high dances. We bopped up and down and made spittle-filled attempts at vocal percussion. We wore scarves and hats and peacoats and gloves, and wrapped our arms around each other, letting our individual voices get lost in the mix, watching our breath turn to fog. And when it was really, really cold, there was sometimes a flask around, or a thermos full of hot cocoa mixed with whatever terrible mint schnapps was for sale at the liquor store across from campus. It was perfect.

I don't sing in arches anymore. But occasionally I do still get the call for an alcohol-enhanced hot beverage, and the trashy ol' schnapps-in-cocoa fix doesn't quite cut it. I want something a little more grown-up, a little more complex, and, well, more delicious all around. This concoction, adapted from a drink created by Aaron Paul of the Daniel Patterson Group in San Francisco, is just the ticket: It has the cocoa thing going on, but instead of a powdered mix, it calls for a robust blend of freshly brewed hot coffee and high-quality crème de cacao. (I like this one from Tempus Fugit, which can be found at good liquor stores around the country.)

But it doesn't stop there. The drink has whiskey, too—use whatever decent bourbon you have on hand—and a double dose of bittersweet liqueur. First up, Amaro Averna, wonderfully caramelly, deep, and rich, with its own hints of cocoa plus a little orange peel and an herbal finish. Then there's a bit of Gran Classico, a liqueur made without artificial coloring, from an old Bitter of Turin recipe. It's supremely citrusy and floral, with hints of rhubarb and a delicate bitter edge. (Campari falls into the same family, but is characterized by a bold red color and, to my taste, a more aggressive bitter side. You can use it here, too, though I don't find the results to be quite as balanced and appealing.)

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With all these sweet and bitter layers, the result is rich, but you control the sugar level by deciding how much coffee to add to your cup. In the original recipe, a short pour of three ounces of coffee gives you a cocoa-like beverage, with velvety chocolate notes just curbed by the bitter cut of the aperitif. Somewhere between three and a half and four ounces feels right to me; the warm whiskey and roasty coffee seem to come to center stage, with the sweeter elements singing backup. But if you're sensitive to sweetness, try adding a little more, a half ounce at a time.

The final touch is a dollop of whipped cream. While unsweetened is just fine (we all know how Daniel feels about the stuff), I've included in this recipe instructions for dolling up your cream with a touch more of the citrusy, bittersweet Gran Classico, which gives you a flavorful topping that's both sublime and a little bizarre. I recommend you try it, at least once.

Singing outdoors in subzero temperatures? I recommend doing that at least once, too. Just don't forget the hot drinks.