Why you might sip something boozy, small, and strong or sweet or warm before bed.

bourbon hot toddies with cinnamon and lemon
Credit: Bryan Gardner

The name tells you almost everything you need to know: A nightcap is the final drink of the evening, meant to cap off the night's adventures and help you settle peacefully into bed with the same snug feeling of comfort provided by the actual nightcaps that people wore to sleep in centuries past. The first instance of using the word "nightcap" to describe a drink occurred more than 200 years ago, and we've been enjoying a little tipple before bed ever since.

Putting the "Just One" in "Just One More"

Knowing when to call it a night is perhaps the most important part of nightcap wisdom. A little bit of alcohol does have a calming effect and can help you drift off to sleep. However, when you overdo it, alcohol can disrupt your sleep patterns: on a bellyful of cocktails, you may conk out for the first part of the night but you will soon find yourself awake again and unable to drift off again, leading to a rough morning.

What's in a Nightcap?

The next important question is, what makes an ideal nightcap? The real answer is, "whatever you're in the mood for." However, there are some guidelines as to what makes a traditional nightcap. A good nightcap is something that can be sipped slowly. Strong brown liquors such as bourbon, rye, whiskey, Cognac and other brandys, as well as aged rums and tequilas are a simple and sophisticated pour to finish the night. Simple cocktails made with these liquors fit the bill too; an old-fashioned, a Manhattan, a Sazerac, a Hotelier, or a sidecar.

If you're someone who prefers to drink your dessert, a sweet and creamy cocktail could be just right to end the night. Try a Brandy Alexander, milk punch, a Grasshopper, or homemade Irish cream. Should something warm be your ideal last drink of the evening, know that your nightcap can be served hot, too. After all, is there anything more soothing than a warm mug clasped between your hands? A hot toddy, mulled wine, glogg, hot buttered rum, or a warm spiked cider is an ideal good-night drink in the colder months. Add to the coziness with soul-warming spices in your cocktail recipe, such as cinnamon and ginger.


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