Not many years ago, when the frost was on the pumpkin and the fodder in the shock, we would go to our favorite liquor store to stock up on wines and spirits as ingredients for our holiday punches, nogs and mulled wines—which we made in advance for our parties and open houses. Our bottles and jugs would have names like Jim Beam, Stoli, Canadian Club, Johnny Walker, Bud, Gallo and Beringer.
We can still buy those brands. But with the rise of regional artisan breweries, distilleries and wineries, we now have local options when preparing our holiday drinks—regional names like Thistle Finch, Iron Hill, Kreutz Creek, Bluecoat, Victory and Paradocx. And if we want to add cider to the match, there are locally made versions at some Brandywine orchards.
Most holiday drinks aren’t made to rigid formulae. All you need do is follow some basic rules and experiment a little in advance. Then you can serve holiday party drinks that bear your distinctive stamp. Here’s four basic potions.
The Idea: Mulled wine is the piping-hot winter alternative to sangria. It should be lightly sweet and spicy, with some good citrus notes.
Local Sources: Kreutz Creek and Paradocx wineries make fruity red wines that are not too sweet that can serve as good bases. Most of the local orchards have ciders, but taste several first for one with a high “zippy” quotient. If you want added sweetness, use honey from Meadowset Farm or other local beekeepers.
The Mix: The base is a fruity but dry red wine used in twice the proportions as the cider. Go with one bottle of wine for every 10 servings. Add spices like cinnamon, and decorate every glass with a cinnamon stick. Try some fresh citrus juices for added acidity. Sweeten with honey as desired. Heat and stir.
Personalize It: Experiment with citrus other than orange, and baking spices other than cinnamon.
The Idea: There are more different types of punch than you can throw a ladle at, so let’s do a basic one with a white base spirit, such as vodka or gin, some citrus juices for tang and some sparkling bubbles for festiveness.
Local Sources: Philadelphia Distilling has a great Bluecoat gin as well as 1681 vodka for your basic alcohol. Depending on your preferences, you can add bubbles with beer or tonic or both. If you use beer, choose a lighter one from Victory or Iron Hill, the kind you might use if you were making a beer-and-lemonade shandy.
The Mix: Figure that you need about two shots of vodka or gin for every glass of beer or tonic in your mix. Frozen limeade or lemonade can add some zest to the drink, and you can also employ it as your moderating factor for how strong or weak you want your punch. Stir the concoction well, and serve it chilled with ice cubes—but not too many.
Personalize It: If you want something with more personality than vodka or gin, use a flavored vodka or absinthe (PD makes Vieux Carré) for a licorice note.
The Idea: Hot toddies—whiskey, hot water and a sweetener—are meant to warm you to your toes and make your ears glow. Although usually served as a solo cocktail, the ingredients can be multiplied for a hot-off-the-stove drink.
Local Sources: Thistle Finch in Lancaster makes a white rye whiskey, which means it’s not going to have too much of a barrel flavor, which works with a toddy. If you want honey as a sweetener, again, our region is honeycombed with beehives.
The Mix: A Christmas hot toddy was my first alcoholic drink, prepared with branch water, Four Roses whiskey and rock candy. I was hooked. For a party, the best way is to make a base of bourbon or rye sweetened to taste with honey, rock candy or a simple sugar. Put a shot or two in each glass and add hot water from the kettle according to whether your guests want an alcoholic peck on the cheek or a French kiss.
Personalize It: Experiment by adding hints of exotic spices, like ginger, to your simple syrup.
The Idea: A one-time acquaintance of mine liked to drink milk and Scotch—“something for me, something for my stomach” was his rationale. A milk punch at its best is a milkshake for adults: milk or cream that is flavored with, and made potent by, bourbon and rum.
Local Sources: Use milk or cream from one of the region’s dairies.
The Mix: In whatever volume you want, use 1 part rum to 2 parts bourbon and 4 parts milk or half and half. You can also add a little vanilla flavoring if it needs a taste boost, and dust the drink with nutmeg. Although you can make it the day of the party, the punch gets an extra tang if you leave it in the fridge a few days to mature like sourdough starter.
Personalize It: Blend some ice cream from Woodside Creamery (sold in stores when the Hockessin dairy shop has its winter closing) either when you make the punch or adding scoops after the punch is in the bowl. Any ice cream or gelato flavor on the caramel side would match the bourbon and rum quite well.