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.
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
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
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:
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
Mix & Match Cocktail (Hot)
1/2 cup red wine
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.