Warmer on the inside

Resetting your booze thermostat for the hibernation months.

AS OUR WINTER nights grow colder, longer, and darker, now's the time to curl up in a comfy chair with your favorite blankie and a piping hot mug of sweet alcoholic fortification. Whether choosing a cozy evening at home or braving a chilly bar crawl, let the words "milk punch" be your guide. What's that, you ask? For the uninitiated, milk punch is a general term for a combination of honey, powdered sugar, alcohol, and, of course, milk. While our Southern cousins prefer these drinks on ice, those of us who spend half the year in sweaters can happily heat up any recipe that strikes our fancy.

Think about it: If you ask any barista for the truth about Seattle's famed jacked-up-on-coffee reputation, you'll learn that we're actually a bunch of big babies who desperately need to start our days with a soothing cup of warm milk (perhaps with one tiny shot lurking beneath the foam). Conversely, mixing booze and warm milk provides an equally gentle end to the day, perfect before slipping off to sleep, dreaming of sugarplums and new job offers.

AT HOME, brandy is the classic foundation for these concoctions, but more up-to-date choices will please your vanilla mocha-drinking friends. With Kahlua and Stoli Vanilla you can whip up the perfect (intoxicating) latte, while the new deVeers Dutch Chocolate forms a sublime base for hot cocoa. Any of the nut liqueurs, now available in pecan and walnut along with classic hazelnut and almond, provide a charmingly delicate background flavor. Swing by the liquor store after work and stock up on cute little sampler bottles of these guys. Add a shot of butterscotch or peppermint schnapps if you're a sugar fiend capable of stomaching such coma-inducing sweetness.

Several proven old recipes suggest combinations of spices and vintage port added to warm milk, but it's easier to stick to less sophisticated (and better tasting) choices. Where's an amateur milk punch mixologist to start? The classic manual American Bar offers up over a dozen simple blends like Bull's Milk, a delicious and slightly naughty corralling of cognac, maple syrup, and steamed milk. No matter what your favorite flavor, follow the mantra "sweet, creamy, and warm," and you can't go far wrong.

Then pop in that video fireplace, pull on your fleecy slippers, and sleep the winter away in perfect peace.

ON THE TOWN, your regular watering hole may not provide cutesy-named milk punch recipes, so phrase your order as "steamed milk with a shot of [name your poison]." Bars need an espresso machine with a steaming wand to heat the milk, so you'll have to search out a spot with both lattes and liqueurs on the menu. As curling lips and raised eyebrows from the bartender are not likely to induce the desired feeling of coziness, your venue is fairly important. Find a place that calls you "sweetie" and answers every request with "of course."

This season, hotel bars are a good choice. Hotel occupancy is down, and you can snuggle on a velvet couch in places that normally have a week's wait for reservations. Here are four swell joints that deliver the necessary coddling: the Sorrento Hotel Fireside Lounge (900 Madison, 343-6156), the W Hotel (Fourth and Seneca, 264-6000), the Hyatt Grand Hotel's 727 Pine Restaurant Bar (727 Pine, 774-6400), and the West Coast Grand Hotel's Terrace Garden (1414 Fifth, 971-8000).

A standout, the W features all sorts of interesting possibilities on its seasonal drink menu, such as W Coffee with cr譥 de cacao, buttershots, and whipped cream. Pack your jammies; for around $200, you can blissfully toddle upstairs afterward to bed.

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