There are two great ways to celebrate the holidays with friends. One way is to join a small group at a restaurant bar for a pre-dinner celebrate-the-season cocktail. Rather than ordering “the usual,” ask the bartender to mix you “the unusual”— one of her specialty drinks that may have an ingredient or two with which you’re not familiar.
Another way to celebrate is to invite friends over for holiday cocktails and whip up a batch of specialty drinks, rather than serving them the usual punch or M&M’s (martinis and Manhattans).
We’ve got you covered both ways.
First, let’s take a little tour of some local bars that happen to come attached to excellent restaurants: Domaine Hudson, the House of William & Merry, Hearth Kitchen, Harry’s Savoy Grill, and the Green Room at Hotel Du Pont.
At the House of William & Merry in Hockessin, Del., the menu is well thought out and beautifully presented. Its bar—a polished, brightly lit, L-shaped unit that accommodates only a half-dozen people—has a sophisticated atmosphere that begs for conversation, with no annoying TV. There is, however, a pleasant bustling in the deep, open kitchen behind you that may cause you to occasionally swivel to catch the action.
W&M’s bar serves classic cocktails (the house Manhattan is worth the journey itself), but also innovative ones. Take, for example, the Perfect Pear—a mixture of pear-flavored vodka, the elderflower flavor of St. Germaine pear (poire) liqueur, juices of lemon and white grapefruit and simple syrup.
Have you ever played “steal a recipe,” where you take a few notes and try to create a restaurant dish in your own kitchen? This holiday, do the same for your at-home entertaining. The Perfect Pear calls for two ounces of vodka as the primary alcohol, which means that a standard 750-ml. bottle can make a generous 12 drinks at home—perfect party size. So start with a bottle of vodka and multiply the other ingredients by 12, and you’ll end up with a container of a dozen pre-made drinks chilling in the fridge when the doorbell rings.
2 1/2 oz. pear vodka
1/2 oz. St. Germaine
1/2 oz. pear liqueur
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. grapefruit juice
1 oz. simple sugar
Place all ingredients over ice in a shaker, stir thoroughly and strain into a martini glass. Add a twist of lemon.
By contrast, the bar at Hearth Kitchen in Kennett Square, Pa., is long and noisy. It’s just right when a group wants to start dinner with a cocktail while mulling over a menu before being seated. The last time I was at Hearth, I asked the young woman behind the bar to whip up an Italian Crush for me. It was so refreshing that I asked for the recipe, which she happily wrote out on a piece of scrap paper. The main spirit is vodka (two ounces unflavored), with fresh grapefruit juice, Aperol and thyme syrup.
Aperol has become a favorite liqueur of the bar crowd in recent years. It has the fruity, spicy flavors of a variety of herbs, including gentian and rhubarb—but with a bitters finish. Thyme syrup? You can make your own, though it does come pre-made. So now we have a second candidate for inspiring a pitcher of 12 party cocktails in the fridge.
2 oz. vodka
1 1/2 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
3/4 oz. Aperol
3/4 oz. thyme syrup
Place all ingredients over ice in a shaker, shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass.
The bar at Harry’s Savoy on Naamans Road in Wilmington is one of my favorites—a big, bold stretch of polished lumber of the kind that was a favorite in New York hotels during the ’60s, but Harry’s is better lit. It’s the kind of place where you can stop off after work for a quick drink and feel free linger for an early dinner at the bar—or, at the very least, nibble on tequila-lime shrimp ceviche or a New England lobster roll while you’re drinking.
For a cocktail, go Asian with the Yuzu-Ginger Martini, another vodka creation that starts with two ounces. Other ingredients include Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, ginger ale and a piece of skewered candied ginger for garnish. Add to that a little lemon and simple syrup, plus a splash of juice from the yuzu, a citrus fruit that originates in Korea and Japan.
2 oz. Tito’s vodka
1 oz. Domaine de Canton liqueur
splash yuzu juice
splash simple sugar
1/2 oz. ginger ale
1 piece candied ginger
Squeeze one-half a lemon into a shaker filled with ice, then add the other ingredients. Stir and strain into a martini glass. Skewer candied ginger for garnish.
Although the tony Domaine Hudson in downtown Wilmington is known for its extensive wine list and sophisticated menu, the staffers there also know how to shake a mean cocktail, occasionally changing their drinks per seasonal considerations.
A favorite one for the carnivorous crowd is the Bourbon and the B—as in “bee” (honey). Here we get away from the white spirits of the previous three drinks and go brown. Start with two ounces of double-oaked bourbon like Woodford or Sagamore rye (an allowable variation on a theme). Then add Benedictine, honey syrup and an egg white. All of which means that this drink will definitely be shaken, not stirred.
2 oz. Woodford double-oaked Bourbon
3/4 oz. Benedictine
3/4 oz. honey syrup
1 egg white
Dry-shake egg white, then add ice to the shaker. Pour in other ingredients and shake again. Strain into a chilled coupe or martini glass.
Finally, we settle in at the cozy Green Room Bar at Wilmington’s Hotel Du Pont, a nostalgic place for me from more than a few years ago, when I’d descend from an office upstairs to continue a business conversation with colleagues over cocktails. It’s a ritual that’s frowned upon in today’s business atmosphere. Pity.
A recent revisit shows the bar looking pretty much the same as it did in yesteryear—and with the same dim lighting, although now there is a too-big flat screen mounted over the back bar. I was intrigued by the Brandywine Manhattan, as this classic is my favorite sweet drink. The friendly bartender explained that it’s simple to shake one up over ice: 1 . ounces each of bourbon, tawny port and cognac.
I enjoyed this variation—and though I didn’t have a problem finishing it, the flavor strength of the port and brandy encouraged me to modify the at-home portions to two ounces of Bourbon or rye and one each of tawny port and cognac. The result was much smoother and slightly less alcoholic.
With that, it’s time for you to go to work and try out a few of these drinks at the bar or at home. Feel free to give them your own twist—and it doesn’t have to be lemon
2 oz. Bulleit Bourbon or rye
1 oz. Graham’s tawny port
1 oz. cognac
Fill a shaker with ice and pour in all the ingredients. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. Add a marinated cherry or two—or more.