The only trouble with the otherwise honorable nightcap is that it has a diabolical way of turning into two or three, thus ceasing to be a nightcap at all but instead a formula for a rough morning. I’ve been down this road more than once, and it has taught me to regard the nightcap as a ritual performed to its greatest effect if I follow a few simple guidelines.
A nightcap should be a one-off, not “one more” of whatever you’re drinking. As much as I love a good cocktail, that’s how to start a night, not how to end it. Your last drink should be set apart, so pick something special, something to sip slowly; one serving of one spirit, neat. When possible, I like to make a separate space for my nightcap: if I’ve whiled away a few perfectly pleasant hours at one restaurant or bar, I’ll switch to another or drink that last one at home. A change of venue facilitates a change of pace and signals that the night is shifting down.
A nightcap should also be brown. There are plenty of clear eaux de vie and other spirits that are said to settle the stomach after a luxurious repast. But a nightcap is different from an after-dinner drink or digestif. I stick with the classics: top-shelf whiskey, good brandy (usually Cognac), a burnished, potent, amber liqueur.
As a coda, a nightcap also shouldn’t stray too far from the movements that preceded it. It should bring them together and offer a fitting — not a dissonant — conclusion. If I’ve been drinking blended whiskey on the rocks, I’ll move up to a different expression of the same spirit, like a slow-sipping single malt (nothing too smoky for me; Aberlour 18 and Bruichladdich 15 are two favorites).
If I’ve been drinking wine all night, a cognac hits the spot. (Rémy Martin V.S.O.P. is easy to find and very satisfying.) It’s also derived from grapes and delivers a lingering, faintly ghostly winelike quality. When I crave something sweet, I go for my grandparents’ favorite: B&B, a mixture of Bénédictine (an herbal liqueur) and brandy. I also love Di Saronno Originale — complex and seductive and suggestive of almonds, though there are none in the formula.
Perhaps most important, a nightcap should be warming. I don’t see the appeal of a chilled or an on-the-rocks drink soon before sleep. A great part of the allure is that a whiskey or a brandy might feel as if it has lighted a little fire at the back of the throat. After the initial burn subsides, a soothing comfort remains, the liquor equivalent of a cup of hot milk. Just much better.
The Perfect Last-Drink Playlist
“Closing Time,” Tom Waits
“Cognac Blues,” Dizzy Gillespie
“Hemingway’s Whiskey,” Guy Clark
“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Frank Sinatra
“Last Call for Whiskey,” Choker Campbell & His Band
“Night Cap,” Charlie Parker
“One for My Baby,” Billie Holiday
“The Parting Glass,” the Pogues
“Straight, No Chaser,” Thelonious Monk
Best Nightcap Scene in Cinematic History (‘The Graduate’)
Ben: I drove — I drove Mrs. Robinson home. She wanted me to drive her home so I — drove her home.
Mr. Robinson: Swell. I appreciate it.
Ben: She’s upstairs. She wanted me to wait down here till you got home.
Mr. Robinson: Standing guard over the old castle, are you?
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. Robinson: Here. Congratulations! It looks like you need a refill.
Ben: Oh no. I’ve got to go.
Mr. Robinson: Is anything wrong? You look a little shaken up.
Ben: Oh, no. No — I’m just — I’m just a little worried about my future. I’m a little upset about my future.
Mr. Robinson: Come on. Let’s have a nightcap together. Scotch?
Unlike most stemmed glasses, the rotund, low-slung snifter encourages you to hold the glass by the bowl rather than by the stem, allowing the warmth of your hand to help warm the brandy. Capacity is usually six to eight ounces, but don’t fill it up: just up to the curve, or about two ounces, will do the trick.