The holidays usher in an infectious atmosphere of celebration and hospitality. And while guests expect to see certain drinks on the menu during this time, this season operators are mixing it up. From smoky Scotch or horchata in eggnog to wintergreen-infused tequila, today’s holiday libations showcase modern mixology by using unexpected ingredients in traditional sips.
What makes a great holiday cocktail? Like all specialty drinks, they need to make an impression. “Seasonal options have to be in the guest’s face,” says Ken Lennox, director of quality beverage for the 735 locations of the casual-dining chain Ruby Tuesday. He sees the holidays as a time for operators to be fun and playful by using components that evoke emotion and memories.
For instance, Ruby Tuesday’s Holiday Sangria ($6), combines cabernet sauvignon, Goldschläger cinnamon schnapps, raspberry and blackberry purée, apples, orange and lime, garnished with a fresh rosemary sprig. The aromatic rosemary “always reminds me of coming home from school in December, opening my front door and smelling our Christmas tree,” Lennox says.
In general, he says, “I love seeing drinks that have a little flair, like a candy cane.” Ruby Tuesday promotes its limited-time drink offerings through table tents and feature menus.
Peppermint remains a popular flavor for holiday drinks. Café B by Ralph Brennan, a 110-seat American bistro/gastro pub in Metairie, LA, offers the Minty Irish ($10), made with Pinnacle Peppermint Bark vodka, Cruzan Velvet Cinn horchata cream liqueur and a splash of cream.
The four locations of the Mexican-inspired restaurant Mercadito offer the Lake Effect, a cocktail made with wintergreen-infused tequila blanco, kaffir lime syrup, lime juice, grapefruit juice, El Yucateco (a Mexican green habanero sauce) and a cinnamon-salt rim on the glass.
Mercadito also offers holiday-themed “beertails,” such as the Cookie Cutter. It’s made with gingerbread- and rooibos-tea-infused reposado tequila, Ferrand Curaçao, orange and lemon juice, topped with Negra Modelo on draft. Holiday cocktails at Mercadito range from $10.50 to $13, depending on location.
SPICE IT UP
Honoring the flavors of the season is the best way to market holiday drinks, according to the Tippling Bros. The consulting team of Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay design the cocktails for the nine-concept Mercadito Hospitality in Chicago.
“When I think of holiday cocktails, my mind always goes to cooking spices,” notes Jenny Buchhagen, lead mixologist at the 124-seat Stonehill Tavern. The Michael Mina-operated concept is in the 400-room St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel in Dana Point, CA.
Buchhagen frequently uses cinnamon and nutmeg in the cocktail shaker, as well as more-exotic spices such as star anise and cardamom. Stonehill’s Taj cocktail ($14) is made with Old Raj gin, fresh orange juice, Campari, old-fashioned bitters and a house-made chai syrup.
Homemade jams can also add depth of flavor and just the right amount of sweetness to holiday tipples, Buchhagen says. She is now experimenting with adding ingredients like pear/apple butter and strawberry/rose geranium to her Market Cocktail ($16), an ever-evolving libation featuring a seasonal jam.
Nick Jones, lead bartender at the Michael Mina-owned Pabu—a 116-seat izakaya at the 256-room Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore—also uses a house-made jams in cocktails. The Fig Pimpin ($11) is made with fig jam, Hennessy VS Cognac, Fernet Branca, lemon, honey and Angostura bitters, and served over a large cube with a fig garnish.
SMOKY AND SAVORY
Carducci and Tanguay look to the earthy agave spirit mezcal to add smoky notes to seasonal drinks—rendering thoughts of sitting by a roaring fire around the holidays. The Alfie’s Apple cocktail mixes mezcal with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon, honey, Sidral Mundet (a Mexican, apple-flavored soda), Peychaud’s bitters and Chinese five-spice powder. The Manzanasada combines tequila blanco, mezcal, apple cider, lemon and ginger beer.
At the 65-seat Storefront Company, a modern farm cuisine-focused restaurant in Chicago, chef/partner Bryan Moscatello features the festive and sophisticated Smokey Nog ($9), which is part of the restaurant’s Kitchen Cocktails program. The libation uses Laphroaig Scotch, Carpano Antica, Bénédictine, pimento dram allspice liqueur, organic egg and cream, and it’s served with a plate of crisp shortbread cookies.
Moscatello’s eggnog riff has a decidedly smoky and herbal element—fitting for those who consider the traditional version to be too sweet. “I think savory ingredients will be more involved with holiday drinks this year,” he says. “Sweet isn’t out entirely, but savory elements are being brought into the forefront.”
Speaking of eggnog, Quill bar at the 96-room Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. serves a signature version of the creamy standard; the exact recipe is secret, but it includes Madeira. The Thomas Jefferson-influenced 63-seat bar (and adjacent restaurant) Plume has a huge Madeira program—Jefferson loved the fortified wine so much he toasted the Declaration of Independence with it.
Madeira adds great acidity to the rich egg and cream, as well as multidimensional notes. The eggnog, which sells for $15, is a customer favorite: “We have some return guests throughout the year that request it when they stay with us—even in the summer,” notes Jefferson Hotel food and beverage manager Sofia Celasco.
Regional ingredients often find their way into nog these days. Café B.’s Eggnog Martini ($8) is made with local products Kleinpeter Farms Eggnog and Bayou Spiced rum, topped with butterscotch schnapps and garnished with a dash of fresh nutmeg.
Horchata—a creamy Mexican beverage made from ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley or tiger nuts—stands in for milk or cream in Mercadito’s Café Horchata, a Mexican-esque eggnog, which also has reposado tequila and a cinnamon-bark garnish.
BUBBLES AND WARMERS
Festive effervescent elixirs speak to the celebratory nature of the season. Sparkling cocktails also allow operators to combine aromatic and visually appealing elements that will be deftly delivered via a trail of bubbles. Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago serves Lush’s Sparkling Cocktail, says general manager Mindy Trafman. The $8 drink is made with Jo Landron Atmospheres Sparkling Wine NV from France’s Loire Valley and Maurin Quina, a French aperitif that adds wild cherry flavor and a vibrant ruby hue.
The Hotel Hershey offers sparkling cocktails as well. “Whether using Champagne, prosecco or sparkling grape juice, bubbles just make it a celebration [during the holiday season],” notes Alisha Bird, certified sommelier and assistant restaurant manager at the Hotel Hershey’s 245-seat Circular Dining Room.
As the temperature drops, nothing beats a warm sip to ward off the chill and offer soothing, steaming comfort for patrons, like Quill’s Madeira-based Mulled Wine ($15). At the five restaurants and bars at the 276-room Hotel Hershey in Hershey, PA, guests can sip three warm tipples. The Paris is Burning ($12), combines Cognac and Chambord; the bakery-inspired Banana Nut Bread ($10) mixes Frangelico and banana liqueur; and the Apple and Ginger Cider ($8) is spicy and fragrant.
At Kachina Southwestern Grill, a 267-seat southwestern restaurant in Westminster, CO, bar manager Nick Tarsi features the Devil’s Cider ($2.45), with warm mulled cider, Chamucos reposado tequila and Leopold Bros. orange liqueur.
Given the richness of some holiday cocktails, guests may opt to substitute them for a dessert. “During the holiday season, everyone is trying to cut back where they can with calories, so certainly in a lounge atmosphere guests often choose to enjoy a dessert cocktail option,” says Brian Confer, beverage manager at the Hotel Hershey.
Trafman also notices guests often having a second holiday cocktail in lieu of dessert. “People love having festive cocktails during the holidays—more than any other season,” she says.
Not the guests wait for dessert to enjoy specialty seasonal drinks, Trafman says: “They are especially great for large groups as a celebratory start to the night.”
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.
THE GREAT PUMPKIN
No holiday celebration is complete without a pumpkin pie on the table, and bartenders continue to serve creative concoctions using or inspired by pumpkins. The Pumpkin Splash ($8) at the 34-seat West Town location of Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago is made with Chase vodka, lime juice, pumpkin purée and Koval Ginger Liqueur, topped with a splash of Fentimans ginger beer and garnished with a fresh piece of ginger.
Summit Restaurant at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, CO, offers the Smashing Pumpkin, with Bourbon pumpkin puree, tangerine, Grand Marnier and brown sugar simple syrup. At The Hotel Hershey, guests can savor the sweet and spicy Pumpkin Martini ($12), with vanilla vodka, pumpkin vodka, and local Pennsylvania Dutch pumpkin cream, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with pumpkin spice. “Everyone is looking for their pumpkin fix this time of year,” says beverage manager Brian Confer.
“Pumpkin is definitely a hot seasonal flavor,” says Ken Lennox, director of quality beverage for Ruby Tuesday—and not just for cocktails. “This year we are featuring Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale ($4.25/regular draft, $5.24/large draft) to take advantage of the pumpkin craze,” he says. As supply runs out, Ruby Tuesday will transition to Sam Adams Winter Lager, which it sells for $4.50 a bottle.—KAM