December: the moment when you realize, oh yeah, it's winter, and it's gonna stay winter for a lonnnnnnnnnng time.
For us serious drinkers, though, December also presents a raft of opportunities to practice our deep elbow bends, whether in the form of office holiday parties, Christmas feasts with family and friends, holiday-themed cocktail parties, or just a night alone at a bar like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.
For many people, December's festivities marks the middle of a bout of partying that starts on Thanksgiving and lasts until sometime in the middle of the overnight on January 1. Navigating it can be overwhelming, and I'm here to help. I'll provide advice for drinks you can make in advance, give you some tips on planning a festive punch, walk you through planning drinks for the tasty ritual known as Feast of Seven Fishes, and suggest ways to welcome Christmas morning via the flowing cup and glass.
Nogs and Gloggs and Pollywogs
Here's one place to start: Get up right now, race to your kitchen, get your blender out, and prepare a batch of eggnog. Now stash it in the coldest spot of the fridge until Christmas morning. The flavors will deepen and meld while it rests, and the alcohol will keep the nog fresh and unspoiled. (Skeptical? I was too, but here's the science to back it up.) Want more than just the classic nog? Here are dozen ways to mix it up, from maple bourbon eggnog to double nut.
Gloggs and mulled wines don't need much advance prep; you can simply mix them the day of your party, but you'll still need to plan ahead, getting in the mulling spices you need and making sure you have enough wine. Need a recipe? Our pal Max Falkowitz has you covered.
Festive Punch, No Recipe Required
Entertaining a crowd? There's no better time of year for punch; it's easy to prep in advance, but looks impressive, especially if you try your hand at a bit of garnishing flair. When you're making an ice block to keep the punch cold, try adding edible flowers, lime wheels, cranberries, rosemary, or pineapple spears to the block to make it more decorative. Serving is much easier than individually-shaken drinks: just leave out a ladle and plenty of cups.
Punch doesn't need to be complicated to be intriguingly delicious. Your secret weapon for sophisticated flavor: oleo-saccharum. Oleo-whatarum? Ha. Oleo-saccharum is just oily sugar. If that sounds gross, relax: the oil comes from the peels of lemons or oranges. Citrus oil adds deep, rich citrus flavor to cocktails, with a nuance you just don't get from the juice alone. It's easy, I promise.
First, you take a vegetable peeler and peel off the colored part of the citrus rind. Put the colored rinds into a bowl and pour sugar over them. Use about two ounces of sugar for every fruit's worth of peel. (Got four lemons? Add eight ounces of sugar.) Bash the sugar into the peels with a muddler or a wooden spoon. You should already see oil in the bowl. Let that sit for at least an hour at room temp.
Put everything—peels, oily syrup, undissolved sugar—into a saucepan, scraping as much out with a spatula as you can. Add about a cup of water and bring that to a boil to make citrusy simple syrup. Stir to dissolve the sugar and let it cool.
Now we're ready to get punchy. Get out your serving bowl and add two parts booze: rum, bourbon, apple brandy, gin, tequila, whatever. Add two parts juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, or a blend) and about 1/2 part sweet (in this case, the citrusy simple syrup you just made). You might dial back on the syrup a little if you're using orange juice, which is sweeter than lemon, lime, or grapefruit. You can mix this up in advance and chill it in the fridge if you want.
When the party's started, add an ice block and something fizzy: sparkling wine, beer, sparkling cider, and spicy ginger beer are all good. Even seltzer can work, if your other ingredients are flavorful enough. Taste it as you go.
Want to see this method in action? How about this tasty (and easy) gin punch: the juniper will remind you of a Christmas tree. Take two parts London dry gin (I suggest the basic Tanqueray, not Tanq 10), two parts lemon juice, and half a part lemony simple syrup. Add about a dash of two of Angostura bitters, per serving, for a little extra Christmas spice flavor. Mix all this, in advance if you need to. When it's time to serve, top this punch with Cava or Prosecco.
Need More Punch Ideas?
Sure, we've got plenty. Start with this Flaming Holiday Punch. Nothing like a little fire to get you moving on a cold day.
Need something non-boozy? I hear ya; I grew up on a simple punch of lime sherbet and 7-Up at my mom's annual Christmas Eve party. You can do better. Consider making rich Spanish-style tiger nut horchata or luscious vanilla-laced pistachio milk as an eggnog stand-in.
Your Own Feast of Seven Fishes
Until I moved to Brooklyn, I had never heard of an old Italian-American celebration called the Feast of Seven Fishes. It's a Roman Catholic tradition that began in Southern Italy. It's also known as The Vigil, and the idea is simple: on Christmas Eve, you abstain from meat and eat only fish, or in this case, seven fishes, while keeping vigil for the birth of Jesus.
What has this to do with cocktails? Well, over the years I've found that some fish dishes lend themselves particularly well to being served as hors d'oeuvres with cocktail pairings. Whether or not you're Catholic or Italian, if you have access to some decent seafood, this is a fun way to mark the holiday. Plan a whole afternoon and evening around it, offering an assortment of small bites of various fishy treats paired with cocktails, beer, or wine.
One nice thing is about stealing someone else's tradition and making it your own is that you don't need to think exclusively Italian when thinking about dishes and pairings. Savory drinks such as gin, aquavit, sherry, tequila, martinis, and Bloody Marys pair remarkably well with seafood; the herbaceous qualities of these drinks bring out a lot of nuance in the fishy stuff, and vice versa.
Start in the morning with lox spread and other appetizing to accompany bagels and Bloody Marys. Later, when you're ready for a light snack, pair blini and caviar or roe with freezer-chilled vodka. For something a little heartier, try smoked-trout deviled eggs and martinis, or shrimp or smoked salmon with a dry sherry, such as fino or manzanilla. Lighten it up again with ceviche and tequila cocktails or herring and an aquavit martini.
Christmas Morning Brunch Drinks
Christmas morning is a great time for a brunch cocktail: the kids are distracted by their rapacious appetite for NEW TOYS and the adults are a little frazzled from awakening at 6 a.m. and could use a little nerve relaxer. Look for something relatively light; it's going to be a long day of rich food, lots of wine, and banshee-like children, so keep an even keel and start slow. For example: kick things off with an Irish coffee. Caffeination and coping all in one.
A time-honored way to keep brunch drinks light and refreshing is to use fresh fruits and juices. Still or sparkling ciders make a great backdrop for great brunch cocktails, and you can get a lot of flavor even from non-alcoholic ciders. Try this bourbon maple cider. Or look for a good pear brandy or eau de vie and simply mix that with sparkling cider for a simple but tasty cocktail. (Clear Creek and St. George both make great pear spirits.)
Seasonal fruits are another great way to liven up Christmas morning: cranberries are still appropriate, so consider this cranberry punch or this sparkling, tangy cranberry-black pepper shrub cocktail. Better still is citrus, which tastes better than ever during its winter peak. A blood orange flip is a good way to go, as is this grapefruit and ginger sparkler.