Chilled out & cheery - booze you can use
December 7th, 2011
11:00 AM ET
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All this hall-decking and merry-making can make a reveler awfully thirsty. You've got enough on your plate with shopping, party planning and frolicking all about town, so don't overthink your holiday drinks.

Yes, cleverly-crusted glass rims and candy cane garnishes might seem terribly festive, but when it comes to prepping, is the work really worth it? Honestly, I'm gonna go with no. I'd need a whole extra set of limbs to count the number of time I've seen windowsills, counters and tables littered with mostly-full glasses of an elaborate themed cocktail - and a mile-long line for shots, wine and beer at the bar. The drinks are awfully pretty, to be sure, but they tend toward the super-sweet and from the first sip, taste like the next day's hangover.

Save yourself the fuss (and wasted glassware) and just spike something simple and let your guests self-serve from a pitcher, pot or punch bowl. It could be eggnog, apple cider, tea, cocoa or even wine, and just for extra giggles, you can even warm it up on the stove.

Spiced-up cider

I love to heat up locally-pressed (if possible) apple cider in a large pan on the stove, and then amp up the flavor with pinches of cardamom, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, ginger and allspice to taste.

If there's a clementine orange on hand (as there always are at my house at this time of year), stud it with cloves and let it sit on a radiator overnight (if you have the old-fashioned kind) or in the warmest, driest place in your house. When you're ready to start simmering, cut it in half and add it to the pot.

Ladle the warm mixture into mugs and serve – offering a shot of dark rum or whiskey to those who might appreciate such a thing on a long, cold night.

The spiced cider can also be cooled down and served over ice, topped with a bubbly bite of ginger beer.

Winterized whiskey lemonade

People do themselves a tremendous disservice by relegating lemonade to summertime. Lemons and other citrus are very much in season right now. Take advantage of their freshness and give them a few minutes in the oven to mellow out the sourness and woo the rinds' oils into play. Teamed with ginger, it makes for a spicy, crowd-pleasing, big-batch-friendly crowd pleaser.

2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger
12-24 lemons

Slice ginger into 1/4" rounds. Bring 4 cups of sugar, the ginger slices and 2 cups of water to a boil, then a simmer until it thickens. Let it cool, then pour it into a clean jar with a tight lid, removing the ginger pieces. This is ginger simple syrup. Any that you don't use can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months.

Slice the lemons in half, place them in a nonreactive baking dish and roast in a 350° oven until they're lightly browned. Squeeze half of them into a pitcher, discarding the peels. Muddle the other half with a wooden spoon at the bottom of the pitcher.

Stir in ginger simple syrup, tasting as you go, but don't over-sweeten. Add water to taste, but leave it a tad strong so it won't diluted over ice. Serve with a ginger slice garnish and a shot or two of whiskey. Evan Williams is my personal choice - it's an excellent bargain for a solid, workhorse bourbon. Old Overholt is a dandy rye option (also wallet-friendly) and Jack Daniel's - man, it's Jack. It's not especially cheap, but it gets the job done.

Note: I used to publish ratios for sour/sweet/water, then inevitably people would complain – too sour and too sweet on the very same recipe! Tastes vary so wildly (I like mine very much on the sour side, and my husband likes his twice as sweet), so I believe people's own palates should be their guide.

Bubbles, bubbles - no toil, no troubles

My across-the-board solution: Prosecco. It's fun, it's fizzy, it's festive – everything you love about Champagne, but at a fraction of the cost. This sparkling wine is Italy's answer to Champagne, and options on the drier side (like my house favorite Villa Jolanda) work and play well with appetizers and sweets – as well as your wallet. Plenty of 'em retail for less than $12 a bottle, so spring for a case (there's usually a discount) and save any unopened bottles for your New Year's Eve toast.

Cava, from Spain is another excellent, budget-friendly option and I've had excellent luck with Marques de Gelida. It comes in a big, festive yellow-wrapped bottle and just pops well with just about any food.

Plenty of other domestic sparkling wines abound – and I can't encourage you enough to have a chat with your local wine store owner to figure out the best solution for your needs. They're in the business of making sure you come back, so don't be sheepish about not knowing exactly what offerings each vineyard has, or even what country you'd care to embrace. Come in armed with a price point and the list of tasting terms I'm about to share, and come home popping with pride over your wine shopping smarts.

A few tasting terms:

– Extra Brut: "Extra" dry, meaning least sweet
– Brut: Dry, and the most common
– Extra dry: Weirdly, this means dry, but not as dry as brut
– Sec / Demi-sec: Fairly sweet
– Doux: Very sweet

Mix and match

When I suggested this method last year, a blogger wrote that it "Represents a new low, the sort of 'anything goes' philosophy that could well mean the decline of drinks culture as we know it."

I respectfully disagree. Only one or two people have ever actually perished from inauthenticity poisoning on my watch, but pretty much all the rest have come back for seconds and thirds. It's all about being a gracious host and considering the needs and wants of your guests, rather than needing to school folks or grandstand.

If you're just entertaining a handful of like-minded tipplers, sure - bust out the handmade Benton's ham bitters and mangosteencello and have at it. If you've got a crowd of thirsty revelers on your hands - just get 'em a drink as soon as humanly possible and don't make them wait for you to shave angostura bark over top of the egg froth or melt your initials into the cube.

It's the holidays. People are going to drop by. They just will. You might as well have something on hand to serve them.

Keep these in stock:

– Lemons or lemon juice (squeeze 6-12 and freeze in ice cube trays if you don't think you'll use it all at once)
– Ginger simple syrup*
– Triple sec
– Maple syrup
– Cinnamon sticks
– Nutmeg
Allspice dram
– Cardamom
– Whole cloves (a little goes a long way)
– Fresh apple cider
– Box of fabulous, yet inexpensive, full-bodied red wine** (Three Thieves Bandit Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Box Shiraz or Big House Red will do the trick.)
– Dark rum – Gosling's or Meyer's
Laird's Applejack
– Whiskey – Evan Williams Bourbon, Jim Beam Rye or Jack Daniel's
– Prosecco
– Ginger beer***

Consider these the Garanimals of your holiday season cocktails. Just mix and match these elements - following a few basic proportional guidelines - for boundless hot and cold holiday beverages. This is not hardcore mixology or a recipe for dazzling your cocktail fetishist friends, but if they have any sense they'll just clam up and enjoy themselves.

For instance, try:

Mix & Match Cocktail (Cold)

1 oz lemon juice
1 oz ginger simple syrup
2 oz bourbon
2 oz fresh apple cider
Pinch of nutmeg
Shake over ice, strain over ice into a double old fashioned glass and top with Prosecco

Mix & Match Cocktail (Hot)

1/2 cup red wine
1 cup fresh apple cider
2 oz dark rum
1/2 oz maple syrup
Pinch of cardamom

Heat all ingredients to a simmer in a saucepan, then carefully pour into two mugs. Serve with a cinnamon stick in each.

Getting the hang of it? Classic proportions of a cocktail are one part sour, one part sweet and two parts strong (if you are indeed tippling), but feel free to shake it up and balance it out with elements of seasonal spice, freshly-pressed apples, a kiss of hearty red wine and a festive fizz of Prosecco or ginger beer. Don't be afraid to play around; all of these ingredients meld well, because they're basically the building blocks of a warm, gingery apple pie.

Just don't forget to jot down measurements as you go so you can recreate your favorites - even if you've gotten just a little bit Blitzen.

Share your best combos in the comments below and give the drink a memorable name. We just might feature it in an upcoming post. Now go drink a toddy. You've earned it.

*Slice ginger into 1/4" rounds. Bring 4 cups of sugar, the ginger slices and 2 cups of water to a boil, then a simmer until it thickens. Let it cool, then pour it into a clean jar with a tight lid, straining out the ginger pieces. This is ginger simple syrup. Any that you don't use can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months.

**Don't go wasting the schmancy stuff if you're going to go mixing it with spices, juices and booze. Good boxed wine - of which there is plenty - brings plenty of bang for the buck, has a much smaller impact on the environment, and stays fresh for weeks.

***Ginger beer is non-alcoholic. Then again, you may have already known that. Not everyone does.

Previously - Eggnog and Tom & Jerry and Starve a fever, drink a toddy?

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Justin

    I also did a winter drink list- check it out!

    December 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. jen

    also cider and rum/whiskey sounds lashtacular.

    December 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  3. jen

    errr.. some ginger beer is alcoholic. such as crabbe's and churches

    December 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  4. dragonwife1

    I make this wonderfully easy drink for our Halloween party, but it could be used for any wintertime occasion:

    Hot Apple Cider – mix a good brand of apple cider with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves to taste, thinly sliced orange (remove any seeds!), and butterscotch schnapps. Heat in a crock-pot and serve to great acclaim! For a non-alcoholic version, simply substitute butterscotch flavoring extract for the schnapps.

    December 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  5. Mike Brooks

    You are missing THE single best holiday drink of all time, the "Christmas Negroni" – One ounce each of iCampari, Italian RED sweet Vermouth, Italian Gin, and Blood Orange Juice. Pour over ice in a previously frozen rock glass (any thick, squat glass holding at least 8 ounces will do). It's delicious!

    December 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  6. Greg

    "...if the have the old-fashioned kid..."

    Nice editing CNN

    December 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • JAW

      I know! You'd think all reporters should be perfect like you, huh ...

      December 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • cosmicsnoop

      And my favorite is: "crowd-pleasing, big-batch-friendly crowd pleaser." Ah redundancy.

      December 8, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  7. Chuck

    Actually, Extra Brute is not the driest Champagne. The driest is designated Au Natural having no sugar at all. It is completely dry and, as such, not for the masses. As a result, it's less common.

    Many people who say they don't care for Champagne will change their mind if given Extra Dry or Sec. The most common Brute is a bit too "brutal," too dry, for some peoples' tastes.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • This guy is really cool

      Wow, you seem like a huge tool

      December 8, 2011 at 12:43 am |
      • Mark

        No, you're the tool for not recognizing that the man knows what he is talking about and that you don't. Read a book, you Philistine.

        December 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • Kat Kinsman

          I would trust the gent's information a good deal more if he hadn't spelled it "brute."

          December 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Jimmy

    I'll take my burbon with ice please....or just a beer over any of these.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  9. Bill

    Glühwein is something I brought back from Germany that's fantastic in the winter. All you need is some orange peels, star of anise, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, and some cheap red wine all heated to about 160deg (use a covered pot or you'll quickly lose the alchohol). Awesome on a cold winter night.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Margaret Toupe

      I agree with you can't go wrong with that drink!!!

      December 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Aaaaactually - saving that for a whole separate post. It's my Christmas Day tradition!

      December 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  10. uhhh

    can we get the recipe for the drink in the picture?..i know that's not the point of the article, but now I want to know

    December 7, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Max the bartender...

      Fill a cocktail glass with red hummingbird mix and 3 ounces of water. Wet the rim of the glass with part of the drink. Turn it over and rub the rim of the glass in red sparkle... no, wait... something's not right here...

      December 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  11. emma

    But what is the deelish-looking cocktail at the top of the page?

    December 7, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Potrick Kettle

      Eeeeeeeewwwwwwww! It looks like a hangover in a glass! Just spike stuff.

      December 7, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Jimmy

      The word delish has to be the most annoying word ever said, stop it please.

      December 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • STFU Patrol@Jimmy

      Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish, Deelish

      and fu ck you

      December 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
      • bristoltwit palin... America's favorite dancing cow

        Ha ha. Her name is emma. At first I thought it was ' enema '.

        December 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
      • emma

        'enema' is what poor Jimmy needs...

        December 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
      • JoJoJOWilliams

        Take your medicine. Not that much to get excited about !

        December 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  12. MSFL

    If you want a good, cheap domestic sparkling wine – I love Gruet. It is a demi-sec from New Mexico of all places and at about $13 a bottle super affordable. I had it at my wedding and give it as a gift all the time, in fact it comes in half-bottles ($8 at my local wine shop) that are perfect for a gift basket or hostess gift.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  13. duh

    The easiest Christmas cocktail is Champagne with a splash of Cranberry juice and then add a few fresh cranberries for garnish. Looks and tastes great and is easy for parties. I use a sweet bubbly from Italy, Moscato.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:56 am |
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