Baby, it’s cold outside.

Ah, but wrap your hands around a mug of something warm, and the chill just melts away.

Whether you’re cuddling on the couch or cozying up to the bar, winter drinks are hot stuff this time of year. They come traditional or contemporary, hot or cold, alcoholic or non. And you can just as easily create them at home as you can order one.

"They’re really easy to make," said Tim Troup, bartender at Downtown 140 in Hudson, Ohio. Troup tends a packed bar almost every night, so he would know. "This is our busiest time of year. I want to make something simple and still delicious and creative."

Anyone who has ever entertained for the holidays knows what he means.

"When people are entertaining at home, they want something kind of easy," said Shawn Kelley, public relations director for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. "My advice is to go with a drink with five ingredients or less."

There are plenty of ways to do that and with the simplest of ingredients, too. Pop peppermint or cinnamon sticks into hot chocolate, or add rose water or flavored liqueurs – like ginger or chai – to regular tea.

Some classic holiday cocktails are the easiest to make. Irish coffee is just Irish cream and a regular cup of coffee. Mulled wine and spiced cider require nothing more than a spice sachet and a few minutes on the stove – perhaps a bit of rum, if you want that cider spiked.

Troup makes his cider with cognac, spiced rum and hot apple cider and serves it in a brandy snifter. He tops it with whipped cream and a sprinkle or two of nutmeg and cinnamon. Talk about decadent.

But Troup’s personal favorite is a bit simpler: butterscotch schnapps in hot chocolate or coffee. It’s another easy at-home drink, perfect for an evening by the fire.

Of course, for fireside sipping, there is no more classic holiday beverage than eggnog.

Michael Green, who consults on wine and spirits for Gourmet magazine, sets mulled wine and eggnog apart as "base" recipes for the holidays.

"I don’t like to put such a heavy twist on a classic that it becomes sort of goofy, but I think you can choose from one of these big-picture recipes and freshen them with spice, liqueur or a serving vessel."

And eggnog is indeed a classic. The egg-and-cream-based beverage has a history as rich as its taste. It’s related to wine and milk punches from Old World Europe, but Americans put their own spin on it, using rum in place of wine. The drink was commonly called glogg instead of rum, Green said, and the trip from glogg to nog was not very far.

Green, who lives in New York City, likes community drinks, such as eggnog or punch served out of a large bowl, to welcome guests and make them feel involved at seasonal get-togethers. It’s a great way to get guests mingling and keeps the host or hostess from feeling chained to the bar.

While eggnog and rum punch may sound like your grandmother’s party drinks, a little creativity – and not much effort – can update them without completely transforming them.

"The ingredients can change dramatically," Green said. "You can add a twist with liqueur (in eggnog), like Kahlua, which can be a lot of fun."

Making eggnog isn’t difficult. Frankly, it’s harder not to trip over a recipe for it this time of year. Still, if you’d rather hit the mall than the kitchen, ready-made options, with and without booze, abound.

Jamie Boyd, who manages the wine department at West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, likes Old New England Egg Nog, which at $7.99 a bottle isn’t expensive.

"Everyone likes eggnog, but this one’s already spiked," she said. "Actually, my mom and I like this a lot when we’re cooking over the holidays. I put it over ice, sprinkled with nutmeg."

To keep all your guests smiling, though, have some nonalcoholic options on hand.

When the weather turns icy, there’s nothing more warming or comforting than hot chocolate. And if you think you’re limited to Swiss Miss, think again. Think marzipan hot chocolate, which has a wonderful nutty flavor. Think Scharffen Berger sweetened cocoa powder from the famed chocolate maker for a simply heavenly drink.

"The thing is, if you use good hot chocolate, all you have to do is add milk to it," said Tina Burdick, who manages Mrs. Ticklemore’s tea room.

Burdick is an authority on killer hot chocolate. The tea room is responsible for a version so devilishly rich that it comes in a demitasse. Its Aztec Nouvelle Hot Chocolate sells for $4.49, which buys you a cloudlike glass of hot chocolate made with Valrhona dark chocolate and infused with spices like cinnamon, star anise, rose petal water and rum extract. It’s topped off with a spoonful of heavy cream. Yum.

That’s no easy drink to make, but you don’t need to spend all evening slaving – melting chocolate and infusing milk – to come up with a gourmet version of your childhood favorite. Adding vanilla or combining with espresso does the trick, too.

Burdick had some other ideas for seasonal drinks without the hard stuff.

"Chai (tea) is a really nice hot beverage to have at home," she said. "I always recommend making it with milk because it makes it one step richer."

Other teas are a natural alternative to the caffeine-and sugar-laden drinks that tempt even the most recessive sweet tooth this time of year. Try cinnamon and orange spice teas to capture the flavor of the holidays, and top the mug with a citrus twist to make it more festive.

Cocktails and other classic winter drinks add warmth to any seasonal gathering, and there are so many to try, from wassails to toddies, kirs to sidecars.

© 2004, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.