The end-of-year holidays deserve special drinks, whether you love these celebrations and festivities and want to drink in their honor or whether you simply want something delicious to sip as you curl up away from the world and wait for the season to pass.
To get some ideas on interesting takes on holiday drinks that go beyond the ordinary but aren't complicated or labor intensive—because, c'mon, you've probably got enough to—I turned once again to my pal, bartender extraordinaire Shane Hobart. (And in case you missed my first post about Shane, in which we chat about all things shrubs, you can find it here.)
Emily: So, Shane, it's what some people consider "the most wonderful time of the year" (though, really, total darkness around 5 p.m. is definitely NOT wonderful). What's your favorite thing to drink around the holidays? And what's your favorite drink to serve?
Shane: Agreed, certainly not the most wonderful time for fresh, seasonal drinks, but there is always fun to be had! Spring, summer, and early fall are such easy times for drink specials—I can simply pop into the local market and see what was picked that day. Now things aren't quite as easy. It's a good time to get back to simple classics, like my favorite, a well made 3-1 rye Manhattan with Antica Formula vermouth (stirred of course!) and brandied cherries. We are also running a barrel-aged Manhattan at the restaurant, which is fun and a great display.
I also like to use shrubs, syrups, and reductions when fresh items are limited. A few of the drinks that I have run recently are a cider Old Fashioned, a cranberry mule, and an apple Sidecar. I also really like one of my bartender friend and coworker Michael's drinks, which he calls Winter Dreams. It's a fruity yet elegant combination of vodka, pomegranate juice, St. Germain, and sparkling wine.
Emily: Wow—those all sound pretty delicious. I can definitely imagine sitting down with one (or, fine, a few) of those and escaping from the holiday craziness for a while.
Tell me more about the cranberry mule. What is a mule, anyway, and is it related to a buck (like the Kentucky Buck)?
Shane: The cranberry mule is a variation on a Moscow Mule, which is really just a vodka buck in a fancy copper mug! So basically a buck is just any base spirit, with citrus, and either ginger beer or ginger ale. Apparently no one knows definitively why it was called a buck, but it was possibly due to the "kick" of ginger beer. As for the Moscow Mule variation, the story goes that it was created at a bar in LA in the 1940's. Allegedly a bartender was helping a vodka salesman, a ginger beer salesman, and another trying to sell copper mugs, by using the three together. Though it's hard to imagine in our Tito's crazed world, vodka was not embraced in America for some time. The Moscow Mule helped make it more appealing to consumers.
As for my spin on the classic, I made a cranberry simple syrup using a few bags of fresh cranberries and equal parts water and sugar. I bring the cranberries and water to a boil and then add the sugar and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Then I gently mash the cranberries a bit to extract more of the juice, and strain out the solids and leave it out until cool. After that it can be kept in the fridge for several weeks and may need to be double-strained if you plan to use it from a bottle with a speed pourer.
For the drink, I use two ounces of Grey Goose, half an ounce each of the syrup and fresh lime juice, and then top it off in a tall glass with Regatta ginger beer. I like functional garnishes, so I do a little triangle of lime, but I suppose you could do something fun with cranberries. A piece of crystallized ginger works well too!
Emily: That sounds delicious, and it also sounds like a drink that would be a cinch to make once you've got the syrup on hand. I can totally see making a batch of these to serve at a party: they're seasonal and a little bit fancy, but also easy enough to whip up in larger quantities, which is always a good thing when you're hosting.
On that subject, are there other batch-able drinks you'd recommend that have some holiday pizzaz but, like your cranberry mule, don't require tons of ingredients or lots of work?
Shane: You can't go wrong with a big batch of Sangria, red or white. It is really forgiving and allows you to customize as you like; such as with St. Germain, your favorite juices, spices, or liqueurs. All you really need is a decent wine, a spirit such as orange liqueur or creme de cassis, some nice fresh squeezed citrus juices, and maybe a bit of soda or sparkling wine.
I think it could easily be made a bit more elegant and seasonal as well, by adding a cranberry liqueur, a rosemary or cinnamon simple syrup, or maybe some Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. These are just some ideas, but I think it can be really simple as well, such as a nice rosé champagne. As I mentioned in our last discussion, I like to start with one ingredient I want to use, say rosemary, and then go from there. I look it up in my Flavor Bible to see what it pairs well with, search the internet for drinks that come up, and then start trying ideas out. And remember, always test out recipes you find online, as that are often not as good as they sound, and don't be afraid to tweak them to your liking!
Emily: Ooh—white sangria with rosemary simple syrup as an extra hit of flavor sounds like it would be awesome. I may have to give that a try!
One final question for you: if you could ask for a bottle of something special for Christmas, what would it be?
Shane: I would ask for a bottle of 8-year, cask strength, single barrel Willett rye. It's hard to come by, but I have loved every Willett rye I've tried. And since it is overproof, it is also the base I would want to have a drink made from. I love the strong stuff made into a Manhattan! The vermouth, bitters, and gentle stirring temper the heat, while highlighting the best aspects of the whiskey.
But since that stuff is over $100, when you can find it, I would also be happy with a bottle of Uncle Val's gin. It is a product out of Oregon, and the "Botanical" offering is so floral and smooth that it almost tastes like a classic martini with vermouth, already mixed and ready to go! Another great bottle, and also perhaps a crossover spirit from bourbon to scotch, is Aberlour A'bunadh, a scotch aged in sherry casks.
It's a great time to be a spirit and cocktail lover, with so many high quality options from around the world. Cheers and safe and a happy holiday season to all!
Thanks to Shane for sharing his holiday cocktail tips and ideas. And Shane, I hope Santa brings you at least one of those bottles on your list!
Ready for a super-simple, super-delicious, beautifully festive holiday cocktail? Shane's cranberry mule is the way to go. The only part that really takes any effort is the syrup, and even that is basically just putting stuff in a pan and letting it cook for a few minutes. Once that's out of the way, you're ready to mix these things up individually or in batches, and the syrup will keep for a couple of weeks in a tightly sealed container in the fridge.
Recipe courtesy of Shane Hobart
Cranberry Simple Syrup
1 bag cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 oz. vodka (Shane uses Grey Goose)
1/2 oz. cranberry simple syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
Ginger beer (Shane uses Regatta)
Make the syrup: Bring the cranberries and water to a boil. Stir in the sugar, lower heat, and let simmer for about 20 minutes. (The cranberries may pop as they cook, but that's a good thing, as they'll add more flavor to the syrup.) Remove from heat and gently mash cranberries. Strain through a sieve into a clean container to remove solids. Let cool. If you don't use all the syrup immediately, store it in a sealed container in the fridge.
Make the cocktail: Shake vodka, syrup, and lime juice with ice. Strain over ice into a highball glass. Top with ginger beer and stir gently to combine. Garnish with a lime wedge, cranberries, a chunk of candied ginger, or some combination of all three. Because why not? It's the holidays.