Like many rural men who came of age during the Great Depression, my father gave up drinking alcohol when he married my mother, partly as a commitment to settling down, partly because there wasn’t any money left over for drink once the bills were paid.
Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve were the exceptions. One of those nights we would walk the half-mile along dirt roads to a neighbor’s house to celebrate, the other night they would come to our place. The celebration would include candies, gifts, firecrackers, and, for the kids, a small toddy of hot water, rock candy, and a modest few drops of Four Roses whiskey.
In the early days of my own marriage, we would have at least one holiday party at our house with a punch bowl filled with well-aged, creamed-based nog. So holiday cocktails—either made singly or for a party, whether served at the restaurant bar or at home—are, for me, a central part of any winter holiday.
Holiday drinks fall into several categories: nogs (milk or cream), grogs (usually with rum and spices), toddies (hot water and brown spirits), punch (usually fruit-based), mulled (heated), and those with sparkling wine.
“During the winter, we’re asked a lot about holiday drinks,” says Nina Sygnecki, manager of Wine & Spirits Company of Greenville, “and we’re most excited about some that involve cordials or liqueurs.” There are three, she says, that are particularly popular.
“We mixed framboise, the raspberry cordial, with vanilla-flavored vodka, and Castries rum cream, which has a peanut base, from St. Lucia at the store last Christmas. The customers loved it!” she says. Many also left with bottles of the peanut-flavored rum cream.
For a Champagne-based Christmas cocktail, Sygnecki likes a Bellini made with Belle de Brillet, a cordial consisting of poire William and Cognac, instead of pear juice. Having tried it, I know the Greenville version of a Bellini has more intensity than the traditional summertime sparkler, and it also has the kick of a stampeding reindeer.
The folks who make Pommery Champagne are also promoting champagne cocktails with several new recipes. One that particularly fits the season is Le Pom, which is flavored primarily with a pomegranate liqueur, a splash of alcoholic orange such as Triple Sec, lime juice, and, of course a topping off with Pommery Brut Royal.
Sygnecki raves about the elderflower liqueur St-Germain, which she says goes well with a number of other flavors and spirits, particularly the clear ones such as gin and vodka. The standard St-Germain cocktail is white wine, St-Germain, and club soda with a twist.
Also fond of a twist is Michael Majewski, manager of Brandywine Prime and a trained sommelier. “We usually offer a seasonal cocktail, such as Sangria in the summer, but we like to add our own twist to it.” In October, he turned to a spiced apple cider.
“Last year we did a holiday punch that is real similar to a Sangria,” he says, with pineapples, oranges, cherries, and brandy—preferably Cognac—marinated overnight and served over ice in a red wine glass with a splash of Champagne. A garnish of cherries and a slice of orange gives it a festive look as well. Can we call it SantaGria?
Sygnecki also likes the single-serving cocktail mixes that come without alcohol, such as those made by Stirrings, from the same folks who produce Nantucket Nectars. “Their spiced apple, for example, can be heated with brandy and spices or served cold mixed with vodka,” she says. The Sugar Plum Martini isn’t a bad choice, either. “They are also great virgin cocktails because they’re already mixed.”
For special effects, particularly if you are entertaining by candlelight, it’s hard to beat a flaming cocktail. If done with proper caution, it can bring down the house without burning down the house. The trick is to slightly warm the spirit being used before flaming it.
One such classic particularly suited to the holidays is the Blue Blazer—a generous portion of Irish or Scotch whiskey, honey, lemon peel, and a little boiling water prepared with two large mugs. The heated whiskey goes in last, and it can be transferred back and forth between two mugs while ablaze, then served in cocktail glasses once the flame dies out. What could be more dramatic for a tree-trimming party?
If there is another commonality between Christmas cocktails and other alcoholic drinks, it’s the use of certain ingredients that seem to say holidays and cold weather: cherries, apples, cider, pomegranate, spices (sweet or baking spices particularly, less so the savories), creams, rums, and sweet syrups or rock candies.
One of my favorite cocktails is the Manhattan, which, with its burnished red colors and the maraschino cherries, served straight up, makes a wonderful toasting cocktail on New Year’s Eve.
But this year, I’m going back to my dad’s hot toddy served decades ago back in the hollow—but with my own twist: equal portions of American rye whiskey and dry French apple cider served hot over a teaspoon of rock candy.
Cheers looking at you!