What do guests crave this time of year? Dishes that coax out feelings of nostalgia, drinks mixing heavier, fuller-bodied spirits and other ingredients, and offerings that incorporate late fall’s and early winter’s bounty, to name a few things.
During the holidays, “guests are willing to be more indulgent and pick heartier, braised meats and partake in dessert more often,” notes Matt Adler, executive chef of Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C. “It’s a mixture of wanting to eat seasonally and replicate the holiday feasts and gatherings most people grew up with.”
The 160-seat restaurant, which also has locations in New York and Bernardsville, NJ, focuses on the cuisine of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Ingredients that will find their way onto the menu this time of year include short ribs, lamb shank, oxtail ravioli and butternut squash, as well as brown butter, sage and warming spices like nutmeg and star anise.
As for the drinks, Osteria Morini beverage manager Kristi Green also reaches for baking spices and similar holiday flavors for her concoctions, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove and smoke. “Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, so I always strive for holiday cocktails with great aromatics,” she says.
Green also gravitates towards brandy, bitters and bubbles. “They’re warm, familiar and classic,” she says.
The Seelbach alla Romagna ($15) is her take on the classic sparkling-wine cocktail that was created at the namesake Louisville, KY, hotel. Green’s version replaces bourbon with Vecchia Romagna brandy, and uses Luxardo Triplum liqueur instead of Cointreau; it also includes Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, topped with Champagne and garnished with a lemon peel.
Osteria Morini’s Vecchi Campi cocktail ($14) is inspired by the Vieux Carré. It’s made with mezcal, Bénédictine, aged Irish whiskey and Bitter Truth aromatic bitters, built in a rocks glass and garnished with a flamed orange peel.
Green is working on several Negroni variations using glassware that is smoked with a cedar plank, evocative of crackling fireplaces and burning piles of leaves. “These will be bold in terms of color and flavor, and the aromatics of the cedar plank are pure holiday.”
Gramercy Tavern, a 140-seat American restaurant in New York operated by the 12-concept Union Square Hospitality Group, follows the seasons for the beverage program, says wine director Juliette Pope.
During the fall/holiday period, guests are more apt to remain at the table, sipping a cocktail, fortified wine like port or Madeira, or a complex spirit, she says.
Darker spirits such as rye, bourbon, Cognac and aged rums are the base for many of the cocktails at Gramercy Tavern around the holidays. The Fall Classic is an ode to the apple, with bourbon, Calvados, apple cider, lemon, Angostura bitters and a thyme-infused simple syrup.
Gramercy’s Concord Crush blends Tito’s Handmade vodka and lime with a local Concord grape purée, while the Cranberry Daiquiri shakes Goslings rum and lime juice with a cranberry syrup infused with cinnamon and orange, garnished with spice- and citrus-poached cranberries. All cocktails are priced at $14.
Maialino, another Union Square Hospitality concept in New York, lets the farmers’ market fare drive menu ingredients. “We’re always adapting to what’s available seasonally, which as winter approaches typically means root vegetables, hearty winter greens, etc.,” notes bar manager Chris Johnson.
The guests at the 92-seat, Roman-inspired trattoria who gravitate towards the best-selling Negronis and Aperol Spritzes in the summer tend to become partial to the Boulevardier ($12) as the thermometer dips, Johnson says. Maialino’s version is stirred with Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, Campari and Carpano Antica, served over a large rock.
Spicing it up
“Lately, we’ve been excited to use bigger, spicier scents and flavors, evoking a rustic feel reminiscent of a campfire,” Johnson says. The smoky Lion’s Mane ($12) has Famous Grouse Scotch, Zucca Rabarbaro Amaro and Carpano Antica, served up with an orange twist. “The smokiness from the Zucca and the peat from the Scotch meld together, and the Antica gives an herbal, coffee note to the drink.” Bartenders reach for amaro year-round, but the deep, warming spice notes are especially fitting around the holidays, Johnson adds.
Guests at the 201-room mountainside St. Julien Hotel and Spa in Boulder, CO, also crave warming, spice-driven elements, in sips that are both locally and seasonally focused. The Asian Pear Martini ($12) combines Breckenridge vodka, fresh pear juice, and citrus with ginger syrup and St. George Spiced Pear liqueur; The Hotckiss ($13) combines CapRock Organic vodka, freshly squeezed Colorado apple juice and citrus, topped with a cinnamon-apple foam; and the Pumpkin Old Fashioned ($10) mixes Breckenridge bourbon, Grand Marnier, maple syrup and pumpkin purée, served up with an orange twist.
“Crafting cocktails should be designed around the best products that are available to you in the current season,” says St. Julien beverage and entertainment manager Bryan Amaro. “What is fresh, local and accessible is what bartenders tend to gravitate to.”
Seasonal sips for warm locales
Of course, not all venues are located in climates that turn cold during the holidays. So how do warm-weather spots incorporate holiday elements into menus? It’s a balancing act, says Daven Wardynski, executive chef for the nine dining concepts at the 404-room Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort on Florida’s Amelia Island.
“I’m a farm boy from Michigan, with very strong feelings about the four seasons. I’m challenged to blend Michigan with the flavors of the beach,” says Wardynski, a frequent forager. He sources local ingredients like briny sea beans, which grow rampantly; aloe vera, which offers a tequila-like flavor and a starchy okra texture, and winter citrus like Meyer lemons and Satsuma oranges.
His surroundings inspired seasonal dishes like seared Pompano Beach swordfish with miso, lemon and mango, which has a fennel aioli spiced with cinnamon, star anise and mulled apple cider. A chilled ginger carrot soup is blended with creamy coconut, fresh Florida oranges and cilantro from The Sprouting Project, the hotel’s new aquaponic greenhouse, organic garden, beehives and smokehouse.
The Plant City blueberry salad, made with wild arugula, local goat cheese and flaxseed crunch, is topped with honey-pine vinaigrette from the Omni’s hive-procured galberry honey infused with native sand pine needles. Those needles, reminiscent of freshly cut Christmas trees, also find their way into cakes, mulled cider and to rim cocktail glasses.
As far as the drinks go, director of food and beverage Chris Walling hedges his bets. “You’ve got to play both fields—be prepared for the cold days, and then pool days, and have a good mix of drinks that appeal to all palates.” He added some small-batch brown sipping spirits to the lobby bar.
Walling is mindful of appealing to guests flying in from the Northeast and other cold climates, who might be interested in brown spirits and heavier flavors. He often plays with classic recipes, however, tweaking a Hot Toddy, for example, by using añejo or reposado tequila to make it more modern.
Paramount to the resort’s holiday cocktail program this year is a selection of house-infused suckers. Guests can pick from 10 flavors—from clove to honey—to accompany any of the cocktails. For instance, the Cranberry Amelia ($10) mixes Herradura Omni reposado tequila with cranberry juice, lime agave and cloves, topped with Champagne and recommended with a cranberry sucker.
One of Walling’s favorite childhood holiday memories was grabbing sweet, boozy cherries from his parents’ glasses as they two-stepped at a Christmas party. “Since those days, a frothy Whiskey Alexander has been my nostalgic link to holidays past.”
The resort’s My Favorite Whiskey Alexander blends Jack Daniels Single Barrel Omni Tennessee sipping whiskey with dark crème de cacao and house-made, vanilla-bean ice cream. It’s whipped in a blender and garnished with grated nutmeg and served with a nutmeg sucker.
Memories like those, conjured up by unforgettable flavors and aromas, are what the holidays are all about. Guests tend to linger longer this time of year, sipping and savoring, so a good balance on the menu of the familiar and the innovative will offer wide appeal.
As Pope says, “the cold and the holidays call for warmth, comfort and conviviality more than challenge and adventure per se. It’s about festivity surrounding old ties and new ones.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.
2 oz. Bombay Sapphire gin
2 tsp. Cranberry sauce
¼ oz. Dry Curaçao
¼ oz. Cinnamon syrup
Dash five-spice bitters (such as Bar Keep)
Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a Martini glass.
Tacy Rowland of Bol in Vail, CO, created this recipe.