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What is the Beverage Called a Nightcap?

Mulled wine is often enjoyed as a nightcap.
Chamomile tea is one possible natural sleep aid, and can be considered a non-alcoholic nightcap.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 July 2014
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A nightcap is a warming alcoholic beverage drunk before going to bed. The nightcap as a drink is an expression that dates back to the 1700s, when folks donned nightcaps as a way of warming themselves and thus promoting better sleep. In a sense an alcoholic nightcap does provide warmth, and also generally makes the drinker a little sleepy. Alcohol at first sedates, and it makes the blood vessels dilate, which moves blood closer to the skin, making the drinker feel warmer.

Another potential origin for the term nightcap is the idea of the “capping” the evening. In earlier times, a person was not considered fully dressed until he or she put on a hat. In other words he or she wasn't finished until capped. Nightcap may thus be used to signify an evening’s finish, and is so used in numerous films where the a young lady invites a gentleman to her apartment or home for a nightcap.

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As mentioned, a nightcap can be a drink of any kind, but usually contains alcohol. There are several bartending groups that suggest a perfect recipe for the nightcap, often involving a blend of coffee liqueur or crème de cacao with milk. Some include scotch, whiskey or other hard alcohols. Some contend that drinks like cocoa, chamomile tea, or warmed milk also can be called nightcaps, but tradition dictates an alcoholic beverage, even in fiction. Charles Dickens, in the novel David Copperfield describes Betsy Trotwood taking her nightly drink of wine and water into which she dips strips of toast.

Physicians used to recommend a moderate amount of alcohol before bedtime for those people suffering from difficulty sleeping, but now more is known about the effects of alcohol on the sleep cycle. Though an occasional drink before bed is fine, regularly consuming alcohol at bedtime can lead to sleep difficulties. Alcohol may make people feel drowsy and warm at first, but it also tends to halve the amount of REM sleep they get. It also has a tendency to promote much lighter sleep in the later part of the sleeping time, which means a person who has drunk before bed may wake up more frequently and more quickly move through sleep cycles.

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Discuss this Article

anon263951
Post 6

People underestimate the power of relaxation and its medical benefits, which outweigh the negative associations with moderate alcohol use in many people.

That being said, obviously if a nightcap does not assist you in getting good sleep, it is not recommended. My father won't sleep a wink if he drinks before bed. For a very long time, I've had a shot of bourbon with a splash of coke as I lie down, and my day is not complete without it.

orangey03
Post 5

Nightcaps just don't work for me. Any type of alcohol tends to keep me from getting good sleep, so a nightcap would have undesired effects.

I have found that whether I drink a margarita, wine, or whiskey, I still get insomnia. It's weird, because I get very sleepy at first, and I think that it would be so easy just to pass out on my comfortable bed. Once I lie down, I can feel my heart racing, and even though I may doze off and have the beginnings of a dream, I always awaken with a jolt several times during the night.

I think this is because alcohol raises blood pressure. I am already on medication for high blood pressure, so it really isn't good for me to be drinking nightcaps often, anyway.

OeKc05
Post 4

This is interesting information on the origins of the word “nightcap.” I never even considered it stemming from an actual cap. I always assumed it meant putting a lid on the evening and calling it a night.

Because having a nightcap means calling it a night, many men would assume if a lady invites them in for one, she intends for them to stay the night, as well. This is why I never invite a guy I have just begun to date in for a nightcap, even if I would like to have a drink with him before sending him home. To him, a nightcap would likely mean something different.

seag47
Post 3

@StarJo – Whiskey heats up my body too much. If I drink it before going to bed, I feel as if I have a fever, and this makes it hard to sleep.

Instead, I drink a glass of red wine. It slows down my brain and my reflexes enough to make me sleepy, but it doesn't produce all that heat inside my body.

I usually confine my wine nightcaps to the times when I have had an especially hard day. This way, my body doesn't become dependent upon them, so it can get the maximum effect when I do use one.

StarJo
Post 2

@rockyraccoon – I always use milk in my nightcaps, but I'm not a fan of rum. Instead, I like to mix milk and Irish cream whiskey. The whiskey makes me very relaxed, and I love the blend of sweet flavors in this type of alcohol.

Just like warm milk used to put me to sleep as a child, a milky nightcap lulls me rather quickly. When I had my first drink of Irish cream whiskey, I commented that it made me feel warm and fuzzy behind the eyes. It seemed to heat up my brain and my blood.

rockyraccoon
Post 1

Because warm milk has long garnered the repuation of inducing sleep it is a sensible component to the nightcap. For a classic calming drink, mix 2 oz. of white rum with 6 oz. of warm milk and a tsp. of powdered sugar. Serve in an Irish coffee cup. Makes a great sipper!

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