Never mind the strings of twinkling lights, elaborately wrapped presents and sleigh bells ringing: This season, holiday spirit begins in the glass. From aromatic, brown-spirit-based cocktails tinged with cinnamon and nutmeg, rich nogs and creamy flips, to warming sips made with hot chocolate, mulled wine or spiced cider, seasonal drinks are sure to put guests in a festive mood. Here’s how to attract patrons with crowd-pleasing, traditional favorites, as well as those that give a nod to current cocktail ingredient trends.
For starters, remember that “Nostalgia is the key ingredient for making a holiday drink,” says Lucien Conner, cofounder of Pick & Rocks Cocktails, a cocktail consulting firm based in San Diego, Calif. Pick & Rocks provides all the cocktail programs for San Diego catering company Campine. “I find that aromatic ingredients that have a traditional association with the holiday season are key: baking spices, peppermint, chestnuts, evergreen needles,” he says.
The components traditionally used in holiday tipples verge on the heavier side, thanks to ingredients such as milk, whipped cream and sweet liqueurs. But Conner sees a trend toward lighter cocktails that can be enjoyed before, after or even during a meal.
Instead of eggnog, for instance, Campine’s Searsucker restaurant includes fizzes on the menu, which Conner sees as a truer fit for its Southern California market. The aromatic Pine Pin Fizz cocktail, which sells for $12, combines gin, lime and Zirbenz Stone Pine liqueur, and is garnished with pine needles.
Searsucker’s Sugar Pumpkin Collins (also $12) incorporates the seasonal fruit without the weight or richness typically found in pumpkin-based sips. Vodka is mixed with a sugar pumpkin puree and lemon juice, and then topped with soda. “There is more success with lighter, more refreshing cocktails that remain in theme with the holiday season,” says Conner.
In the two restaurants and three bars found at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., a new take on a classic mimics the ice and snow found outside its doors. The Aspen Smash ($14) starts with a tumbler overflowing with crushed ice, to which bartenders add local Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey, Leopold Bros. maraschino liqueur, mint and lime.
A riff on the Manhattan ($14) features cherry- and spice-infused Bourbon. “We try to utilize local spirits in traditional drinks, or sometimes give traditional drinks our own twist,” says Sabato Sagaria, food and beverage director of the 92-room Little Nell.
At the 85-seat California cuisine-focused Grant Grill inside the 270-room US Grant Hotel in San Diego, head mixologist and certified sommelier Jeff Josenhans gives holiday drinks his own spin. Josenhans incorporates what he refers to as “edgy” ingredients, including saffron, Douglas Fir and persimmon.
For the Douglas Collins ($12), Josenhans infuses Death’s Door gin with real Douglas fir needles from the San Bernadino Mountains; the drink also contains Meyer lemon juice and is topped with soda. Grant Grill’s South American Holiday Sour ($12) uses Kappa pisco, Tanteo Cocoa tequila, lime, Christmas bitters and muddled fresh cranberries.
BD’s Mongolian Grill, a “create your own stir-fry” restaurant concept based in Burnsville, Minn., is partnering with Samuel Adams for some of its holiday drinks. “We are using their Angry Orchard hard cider as an ingredient in our two ‘Holiday Lights’ drinks as a great way to create something fun, seasonal and very tasty,” says Brad Russell, director of marketing for the 31-unit chain.
For instance, the Angry Apple Pie is made with apple juice, amaretto, cinnamon schnapps and Angry Orchard cider, while the Angry Harvest features peach schnapps, cranberry juice and Angry Orchard. Both cocktails, which sell for $7, will be served with a lighted ice cube for the guest to take home, Russell says.
Adding a touch of flair can give holiday cocktails a boost. The 550-seat Chandelier Bar at the 2,995-room Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas offers a seasonal libation called the Immaculate Conception. Mixologist Mariena Mercer spritzes a mist containing gold flakes, frankincense and myrrh on top of the chai-infused, Punt e Mes-based cocktail, which sells for $14.
Especially in markets with a seasonal climate, holiday drinks served warm are top sellers. In Aspen, Sagaria points out that hot cocktails are fashionable five months out of the year—longer than in other markets he has worked in. The Little Nell’s “Hot Holidays” beverage menu always features a comprehensive list of selections, including a hot toddy, and cocktails with bases of coffee, espresso, hot chocolate and cider.
The Hot Buttered Peach ($14) features Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach whiskey, hot water and a batter crafted from brown sugar, butter and baking spices. Most warm cocktails are enjoyed at The Little Nell après ski, rather than at dinner, Sagaria says. “After people are coming off the mountain and have burned a lot of calories, they are ready for a hot beverage, so we see people drinking more of these than eating dessert.”
Sagaria recommends garnishing the drinks beautifully and walking them through a crowded bar. When staff serves hot chocolate-based cocktails in a mug overflowing with fresh whipped cream and house made marshmallows, for example, the striking presentation elicits a bevy of remarks—and likely some orders—from dinner guests.
At Andys Wine Bar, the lobby bar at the 185-room Fairmont Hotel in Pittsburgh, pastry chef James Wroblewski makes a Valrhona-based hot chocolate served complementary in the lobby during the holidays. Mixologists combine it with cinnamon, cayenne pepper and other spices for the Pittsburrrrgh Hot Chocolate cocktail ($10), which includes B&B and Amarula, the South African cream liqueur. The drink is topped with Kahlua-infused whipped cream.
Chocolate also finds its way into versions of that holiday staple, eggnog. At the Iberian Lounge at the 276-room Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Penn., beverage manager Brian Confair mixes eggnog, spiced rum and white chocolate liqueur for the White Chocolate Eggnog. The decadent drink, which sells for $10, is topped with whipped cream and white chocolate shavings, and sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice.
Not just desserts
Confair doesn’t believe guests are replacing dessert with these decadent liquid offerings. But he points out that smaller dessert portions of the cocktails served in shot glasses are allowing guests to have their cake and drink it, too. “We are trending back to the mentality that it’s okay to spoil ourselves occasionally as well, which is good for cocktail sales,” Confair says.
Nogs and flips both rely on eggs, which add richness, body and a creamy mouth feel to festive cocktails. At the 149-seat Vesper Bar at The Cosmopolitan, mixologist Christopher Hopkins’ The Coin Flip ($14) combines Fernet Branca, Navan vanilla cognac, half-and-half, an egg, and syrup infused with cinnamon and orange zest, all topped with an atomizer spritz of Fernet Branca. “Trends in festive drinks lean more towards traditional spices—nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, allspice, mace,” Hopkins says. “The types of flavors associate with Christmas cakes, pumpkin pieces and sitting by an open fire.”
Hopkins also believes there is a tendency around the holidays for guests to more frequently order dark spirits like aged rum, single-malt Scotch and Cognac, which easily stand up to the more intense flavor profiles of the other ingredients. Along the same lines, he cites less-frequent use of bright citrus and fruit during the fall and winter months.
The staff at Central Michel Richard sees drinks inspired by baked goods or holiday desserts, including pumpkin pie, gingerbread cookies and pizzelles, as a holiday liquid trend. The bistro at the new 1,800-room Revel Resort and Casino in Atlantic City offers a homemade spiced apple cider garnished with candied apple tuiles.
To successfully market such specialty cocktails, some operators suggest placing them alongside the dessert menu. Having a server walk one or two through the dining room doesn’t hurt either. After all, when guests can see, smell and practically taste them, these festive libations become not only a part of venue’s seasonal decor, but a contributing factor to patrons’ happy holiday moods.