Holidays prove it with depressing, tinsel-strewn, returned-gift regularity: you just can’t please everyone. But with the right cocktail lineup, you can probably get close; at the very least, you can calm some jaded, jingle-belled nerves. So, as we suit up and step out into that magical season festooned with hemorrhaging wallets, passive aggressive relatives, and hefty expectations for the hospitality industry and beyond, we’re happy to have one reliable crowd-pleaser in our hands: the diversified winter drinks menu.
The Ready Freddie
The Smashing Pumpkin
The Fratelli Stinger
Rest in Pieces of Eight
The Islay Scotch Hot Toddy at INK — Los Angeles, CA
Barman Max Seaman and his Warm Milk Punch
Inevitably, there are the usual yule-tide flavor suspects: hard spices, citrus, vanilla, dried fruit, and other familiar palate-hearty additions all tend to show up in some way or another. (Why not? This time of year the body requires a little warmth and spice.) But all four of our holiday cocktails have distinct characteristics that tend to assert “mixology!” (think aggressive doses of Cynar, “triple malt” Scotch, an icy blast of BrancaMenta, oh, and a whole lotta brown booze) over the brassy, seasonal-drinks chorus.
Even as we find ourselves relegated to the darker, spicier, and sweeter side of the drinks cabinet, there’s plenty of room to test boundaries—as long as we keep our hands off that precious and super sentimental nog of egg.
The Ready Freddie: The classic Cobbler-style cocktail may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think winter drink. Mixologist Alan Kennedy from Nashville, Tennessee, adds a little something to give the typical warm weather refresher some wintry gravitas. The goal in mixing his Ready Freddie cobbler at Music City Tippler, says Kennedy, is “making a fun and approachable Scotch cocktail,” but the larger goal is to “show the beauty of a blended single malt Scotch.” (If that’s not in the spirit of holiday giving, what is?) Like an approachable Blood & Sand, the drink presents a beautiful Scotch: Monkey Shoulder, the recently available straight Speyside blend. It’s a “triple malt” that combines three of the region’s best single malts to yield a specific, complex flavor profile, consistently. The spectrum of flavor is worthy of a Dean & Deluca Christmas catalogue: cinnamon, baked fruit, vanilla, florals, mint, oak, the list goes on. The Ready Freddie is on draft, and since approachability is key, Kennedy balances the medicinal notes with his cherry-infused Peychauds, a half-ounce of Velvet Falernum, and fresh citrus juices. He doses it out, draft by draft, to many a merrywassailer.
The Smashing Pumpkin: Calling something “fall in a glass” might seem straight-up kitschy, but in this case Donnie Pratt’s Smashing Pumpkin makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside in the best way possible. It conjures just a bit of the spice and richness of everyone’s favorite gourdy dessert—not to mention a chorus or two of “1979.” The truth is, there’s a whole lot of complexity underlying this seasonal association, starting with the clove, nutmeg, and modestly assertive pumpkin of Foothills Brewing Co. Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale, which Pratt reduces with allspice, brown sugar, cinnamon, and Courvoisier VS Cognac. The resulting pumpkin ale liqueur becomes a baseline, pervading a mixture of Scotland’s oldest blended whisky from Famous Grouse (which has Macallan, Glenrothes, and Highland Park to thank for its balanced, subtly smoky, slightly sweet approachability), fresh orange juice, and a half ounce of nutty, candy-spiced Cardamaro—a wine-based Piedmontese digestif made with cardoon—and Blessed Thistle. Yes, it’s the herb once used to cure the bubonic plague. This Smashing Pumpkins is apt for a season of mixo miracles.
The Fratelli Stinger: Here’s a drink that straddles fall and winter without unnecessary layers (read: no sweater vests required). The Fratelli Stinger combines the rich brown warmth of bourbon and Laird’s applejack with a frosty, mouth puckering blast of BrancaMenta. Born out of a Fratelli event, the drink was Mixologist Andrew Volk’s way of putting BrancaMenta at the fore, giving the liqueur a chance to be the star of the show. “I wanted to use the Menta in a way that made it stand out,” says Volk, a Clyde Common alum who recently opened Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Maine. “Reworking The Stinger made perfect sense.” In place of the brandy and white crème de menthe in the classic Stinger, Volk uses a mixture of applejack and bourbon to up the proof; they can’t get bonded applejack in Maine. Mixing the combo with a three-quarter ounce pour of BrancaMenta gives the drink a tingling, chilly, icy feel that’s rooted in a gentle warming sensation. It’s just the thing to look for when the sun unapologetically goes down at 4pm and you’ve got time, and the rationalization, to sit back and sip on the season a little early.
Rest in Pieces of Eight: What’s better at the end of a big holiday meal than a little digestif? Something bracing, bitter, and herbal, perhaps, to cut through the onslaught of proteins, carbs, and various gravies to which you’ve just subjected your unsuspecting body. Clocking in with one and a half ounces of Cynar, Doug Monroe’s Rest in Pieces of Eight—named for an Italian pirate who eventually paid for hoarding his gold —should do the trick. Despite its artichoke associations, Cynar is more of a mélange of flavors, some vegetal but others spicy, sweet, and dark. It’s perfect for a wintry cocktail with a bit of depth. Head Bartender at The Patterson House in Nashville and self-professed Cynar lover, Monroe puts those flavors front and center. The voluminous Cynar stands up to “the big funk” of Smith & Cross rum. And spice from his ginger syrup does double duty, “[playing] with the floral vanilla of the Licor 43”—a Spanish liqueur with roots in Ancient Rome—and backing up the warm, molasses notes of Cruzan Blacktrap rum. Thankfully, it’s used to rinse the glass, and not misapplied in the manner of the much maligned holiday fruitcake.
The Islay Scotch Hot Toddy Stock Cube: What says “holiday party” like the Jello shot? Sure, such a holiday party might involve more keg stands and fewer well-crafted cocktails, but fortunately we’ve got L.A.’s Ink Mixologist Gabriella Mlynarczyk’s at the helm of our hedonism. And standing in for those noxious, if color correct, Jello shots is the Islay Scotch Hot Toddy Stock Cube. “In the UK, as kids, we would get a packet of ‘cup a soup’ for keeping us warm on the train to school; just add water,” says Mlynarczyk. “So I started thinking about making an instant adult hot drink and came up with the insta-toddy.” Like a reverse Jello shot, Mlynarczyk’s drink involves a cube of gelatinized Islay Scotch that’s been mixed with warming black pepper and allspice, playing into the peaty, smoky, briny, and generally delicious flavors of the Scotch. The drink service is a subtle show stopper, with cube delivered tableside and hot tea poured over, alongside classic Toddy additions like ginger, lemon, and honey. “The spices and Scotch are what make this a great holiday treat,” says Mlynarczyk. “Maybe leave one out for the man in the red suit!”
Warm Milk Punch: If the holidays are all about reviving old traditions (They are. Check with Hallmark.), the drink to accompany all that joyful reviving is the Warm Milk Punch at The Varnish in Los Angeles. If mixology elsewhere is generally (but not always) associated with progress, improvement, innovation, The Varnish is one of a smaller rank of bars dedicated to “refining existing or historic recipes, like this Milk Punch,” says Barman Max Seaman, who adapted his recipe from a 1811 recipe by Mary Rockett (published in Dave Wondrich’s Punch, and attributed as being “the oldest extant recipe for Milk Punch.”) Seaman’s adaptations are several, and significant, since it’s not about preserving history, but exploring improvements within it: the typical brandy is replaced by a mixture of Demerera rum and Cognac; the Oleo-saccarhum (whereby citrus peels are macerated in sugar overnight, pulling out essential oils) replaces the liquor-infused lemon peel; and the sweet-sour ratio and amount of milk are both modified. After combining all ingredients, resting, and straining the curds, Seaman has a mixture that’s shelf stable in the cellar for up to six months. Per service, he simply chaffes the drink with the steam wand of an espresso machine. The result is balanced between rich, slightly bright, and boozily warming.