The “Nightcap” Is Not an End, It’s a Beginning

The very first page in the 1827 recipe book Oxford Night Caps begins with a set of couplets, attributed only to an “Ancient Fragment,” about the pleasures of mulled wine:

Three cups of this a prudent man may take,
The first of these for constitution’s sake,

The second to the girl he loves the best,
The third and last to lull him to his rest.

Nearly two centuries later, I consider the Adonis, a melding of two separate but equal expressions of fortified wine, sherry and vermouth, my preferred nightcap. The Adonis is a minor miracle of a cocktail for those inclined toward the complex, stirred, spirit-forward, in that it is completely devoid of a base spirit, and thus, lacks the high-proof gut punch at the beginning or end of a night. The nuttiness and floral character in that coupe inexplicably bring me back to childhood memories of my parents enjoying mooncake and tea as they stayed up late to observe the Mid-Autumn Festival. How I’ve come to make that association still escapes me, but it’s the call that I answer, letting me know it’s time to go home. 

“The nightcap is an intensely personal beverage,” bartender Natasha David, who owned the late bar Nitecap in New York, told Punch contributor Kara Newman in the book titled… you guessed it: Nightcap. “It has to be what makes you happy at the end of the day. It’s so much about your personal state of mind at that moment.”

The earliest written usage of “nightcap” is likely traced back to the aforementioned Oxford Night Caps in 1827, though considering that an entire recipe book was published based on the concept, the “nightcap” likely began its journey into the English lexicon much earlier. While modern science insists that alcoholic beverages are not as useful a sleep aid as previously thought, the nightcap was such a vital fixture to 19th-century Western drinking culture that its metaphorical meaning was presumed to be universal. In the 1877 book The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe, the author Charles Mackay suggests that it was the nightcap that brought us another enduring term in the drinking lexicon: “quaff”—to drink heartily.

Coiffer in French means to dress the hair, also to put on a head-dress or a nightcap,” Mackay wrote. “To be coiffé in this sense was to have so much drink in the head as to be sleepy, i.e. to have a nightcap on: just as a glass of spirits and water before retiring to rest is sometimes called ‘a nightcap.’” 

By the 21st century, actual nightcaps had long gone out of fashion, but language slinks forward in time, in constant reference to what precedes it; the nightcap was born a euphemism, and remained one, albeit in a different form. As “an alcoholic beverage before bed” became the prevailing definition of the nightcap, superseding the garment, the “nightcap at my place” became an obvious deus ex machina for Harlequin romance novels and rom-coms alike.

Whither the nightcap today? Naturally, I think of the late queen. In the months leading up to the Platinum Jubilee in early 2022, doctors had advised Queen Elizabeth II to eliminate alcohol from her daily routine. “The Queen has been told to give up her evening drink,” a family friend said in 2021. “It’s not really a big deal for her, she is not a big drinker but it seems a trifle unfair that at this stage in her life she’s having to give up one of very few pleasures.” 

Those pleasures included a glass of Champagne before bed every night, which, royal idiosyncrasies aside, had always struck me as a strange choice for a nightcap, flying in the face of conventions built on centuries of lived experience. Traditional nightcaps often involve brown spirits, perhaps some subliminal appeal to the benefits of resting unperturbed in the dark, allowing the sharp vividness of the day to age into memory—the promise of a transformational slumber. At the very least, nightcaps champion flavors that linger, offering space to create a lull in one’s mind. Champagne, in its stimulating brightness and effervescence, accomplishes the opposite, wiping the slate clean for more of the right here, right now.

Yet the more I consider it, the more I wonder if the queen knew something the rest of us peasants didn’t. Newman, ever the authority on nightcaps, said it herself in this space: Modern nightcaps are breaking the mold. The Adonis may be my nightcap, but is more often than not someone else’s night-starter; a glass of Champagne before bed, meanwhile, signals a sort of rewiring of perspective. A good night’s rest is not a begrudgingly logical endpoint of a day, but a beginning. It is an opening toast to the after-party of the subconscious; a toast to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream.

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