Originally published on December 13, 2011.
Remember the good old holidays when dad put on a tie, mom erected a gingerbread village and Jimmy Stewart and Natalie Wood made us believe in miracles? Me neither. That’s why we have Turner Classic Movies. One thing I do miss about the postwar forties, even though I wasn’t around, is the parties. Back then, suave hosts were esteemed for their command of cocktail shakers, not corkscrews. Tending bar took effort, but guests were treated to something more than store-bought – the Pavlovian clatter of ice, customized flavours and the grace note of a well-chosen garnish.
I yearn for those debonair times, especially when spinning The Sinatra Christmas Album on the turntable. Somehow, Australian shiraz doesn’t cut it while the Chairman’s crooning Mistletoe and Holly.
Today, the most enthusiastic keepers of the festive flame are professional mixologists, pillars of our economy that Frank Sinatra would have respectfully called bartenders. Visit a good establishment this season and you might come away with smart ideas for your own holiday gathering.
Like Flip the Switch, a bourbon-based creation by Aja Sax, bar manager at The County General, a fashionable new restaurant in Toronto. It’s based on a classic mixed-drink formula called the flip, which employs raw egg for froth.
Into a cocktail shaker, add 1½ ounces of bourbon (Ms. Sax uses Bulleit), half an ounce of Grand Marnier, three-quarters of an ounce of freshly steeped and cooled Earl Grey tea, plus one egg yolk. To this mixture Ms. Sax also adds half an ounce of cinnamon syrup, which is a “simple syrup” of sugar dissolved in hot water steeped with cinnamon sticks. Before adding ice, shake the mixture vigorously to achieve a good foam, then add a fistful of ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass and grate cinnamon overtop.
Another seasonal offering at The County General, the Punch ’n’ Pie, makes use of pumpkin purée – cooked pumpkin flesh mashed with cinnamon and vanilla. In a shaker with ice, combine 1½ ounces of El Dorado 12-year-old rum, half an ounce of Sailor Jerry spiced rum, 1 ounce of apple cider and 2 teaspoons of the purée. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass, then top with a light dusting of nutmeg. It’s a rum punch that tastes like pumpkin pie, and it’s smartly balanced, deriving its sweetness entirely from the gourd, cider and spiced rum.
“I don’t particularly like sweet cocktails,” Ms. Sax says. “I’m a beer and whisky girl.”
I have a feeling Frank Sinatra would have liked her.
At Yew Restaurant + Bar in Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel, head bartender Justin Taylor riffs on another standard, the gimlet, for his St. Nick’s Gimlet. Into a cocktail shaker with ice, pour 1½ ounces of gin, half an ounce of Aperol (the Italian, bitter-orange aperitif), half an ounce of lime juice, half an ounce of simple syrup and half an ounce of falernum. That last ingredient is a sweet syrup flavoured with lime and ginger and often used in Caribbean cocktails. It’s available commercially in non-alcoholic as well as alcoholic form, but Mr. Taylor makes his own, with added clove and star anise. Shake all the ingredients and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge dipped in cane sugar, skewered with a toothpick and rested over the top of the glass. Zesty and aromatic, the drink comes out Santa’s-cheek pink.
I’m also fond of Mr. Taylor’s Christmas in Manhattan. In a shaker with ice, add 1½ ounces of rye whisky, one ounce of red Dubonnet aperitif, half an ounce of nocino (a hard-to-fine green-walnut liqueur; don’t quote me to Mr. Taylor if I suggest substituting a quarter of an ounce of another nut liqueur, such as Frangelico, and cutting the Dubonnet in half). Splash with three dashes of Angostura bitters, stir and strain into a cocktail glass.
For flourish, Yew’s staff ignite the oil of an orange-rind sliver, twisting the peel over a lighter, which causes a brief flare. “It’s a real wow factor,” Mr. Taylor says. “The moment you do that, that drink starts selling like crazy.”
But maybe you don’t want that effort, or fire hazard, at home. A standard Manhattan, made with whisky and vermouth (two to one) plus bitters and garnished with a maraschino cherry, would be a fitting, if un-nutty, holiday offering.
One way I’ve learned to infuse a drink with subtle, seasonal nuttiness while eschewing sweet liqueur is to deploy sherry. It’s the key in a Tuxedo, a forgotten New York classic. Add two ounces of gin, one ounce of dry fino sherry and a dash of orange bitters (substitute Angostura if you can’t find orange) to a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Think of it as a merry martini.
Aromatic gin figures in a more conspicuously festive cocktail, the Champagne-based French 75. Add one ounce of gin, half a teaspoon of icing sugar and the juice of half a lemon into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a Champagne flute, then top with sparkling wine.
If bracing gin is not your thing, consider the standard Champagne cocktail. Drop a sugar cube in a flute, soak with two dashes of Angostura bitters and pour in two-thirds of an ounce of Cognac. Top up with bubbly. The cube acts like an Alka-Seltzer tablet, cranking up the bubble action, while the brandy and bitters add bass and treble notes to the wine. For added glitz, float a dried cranberry on top.
There is just one better use of brandy in cocktaildom as far as I’m concerned. It’s called the sidecar: one ounce of brandy, two-thirds of an ounce of Triple Sec liqueur and two-thirds of an ounce of lemon juice. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of lemon peel. It has a golden glow and the yin yang of brandy’s caramel-like depth combined with tangy citrus. But insist that guests pony up their car (or motorcycle) keys before you start mixing. I’ve never known a person to stop at one.