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What Is A 'Nightcap' And How Did It Get Its Name?

nightcap drink

You must have often heard it in pop culture, especially in US and UK sitcoms and films. 'Do you wanna join me for a nightcap?' is perhaps the most commonly written dialogue where a man or a woman invites his/her date for a drink at their home. But nightcap is quite an old word, whose usage has varied. How did it withstand the test of time what with the onslaught of innovations in the world of mixology? Let's find the answer to this question by going down history's lane.

A Brief History Of Nightcap

The term ‘nightcap’ can be traced back to the 19th century. The very first written documentation of this word is in Oxford Night Caps in 1827. Since an entire book was dedicated to the concept of nightcap, it made the word's usage popular in the English lexicon. As per 19th-century drinking culture, a nightcap is an essential drink and part of the lifestyle, believed to help the drinker catch a good night's sleep. However, it is important to note that modern science rejects the notion that alcoholic beverages assist in providing better sleep. 

As per the 1877 book The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe, the author Charles Mackay claims that the term nightcap brought another word which would prevail in the drinking lexicon - quaff. Quaff means to drink heartily. He wrote: "Coiffer in French means to dress the hair, also to put on a head-dress or a nightcap. 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'." This makes nightcap an extremely personal drink, meant to keep you happy at the end of the day, very connected with your state of mind before bed.

Nightcap stopped being a commonly used drinking term with time and its usage changed with time. Nightcap began to be used as a euphemism for 'an alcoholic beverage before bed'. The term became fashionable in romance novels and even rom-coms.

Traditionally, nightcaps included brown spirits that led to pushing the drinker to a state of slumber. Nightcaps have flavours that linger and offer space to create a lull in the mind.

But this practice had long begun to change. Take the British royals, for instance. It came to the public's knowledge that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed a nightcap of champagne. A family friend revealed to the press that in late 2021, doctors advised the late queen to exclude alcohol from her diet, which included her evening drink Champagne.

nightcap image

Modern Nightcap Recipe


60 ml Captain Morgan Dark Rum
60 ml cold-brew coffee
15 ml grade A maple syrup
Zest of 1 orange
1 dash Angostura bitters
Tonic water to top
Orange peel for garnish


Mix rum, cold brew, maple syrup, orange zest and bitters in a shaker with ice and shake until the contents are well-chilled. Strain the mixture into a highball glass over large ice cubes. Top with tonic water. Stir gently. Garnish with an orange peel.

While learning about spirits and cocktails and enjoying them is normal, it is key to consume alcohol moderately. It is essential that one serves and drinks responsibly to maintain health and to stay out of any harm's way. If you know anyone who finds it difficult to control their alcohol consumption, please refer them to a professional.

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