In his ubiquitous novella “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens uses his descriptive powers to lay a scene of scrumptious decadence at the feet of the Ghost of Christmas Present. This includes “seething bowls of punch,” which would have been clearly understood by Dickens’s mid-1800s readers to be made with either gin or rum. Both spirits were relatively easy to attain when the text was first published, though gin was used more often by those with moderate means because they could often make it themselves, or some version of it.
The days leading up to the holidays are a time when old family recipes are pulled back out, crafty drinks get a bit craftier, and innovative flavors become the order of each gathering and get-together. Some of those seething bowls haven’t changed too much from their humble beginnings, but some — invented only recently — have become harbingers of the holiday as much as the jolly and glorious Ghost of Christmas Present himself.
From new takes on ancient recipes to creative concoctions that represent the holidays in their modernity, here are some of the ways that American bartenders infuse their cocktails with a hint of holiday spirit.
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The history of recipes for rum and gin punch date back to the medieval period in England, with practical and economics-based approaches to recipes. For Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender, author of “The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique,” and owner of Pacific Standard in Portland, Ore., making punches is all about versatility.
“When I ran Clyde Common, we did a punch of the day every day,” says Morgenthaler. “Mostly, we made rum and gin punches, and they were always on the menu. Gin and rum are very versatile spirits — we took a lot of inspiration from David Wondrich’s ‘Punch’ book. Those are very accessible spirits, and people really love them.”
Morgenthaler’s reverence for punch goes deep; he’s released a series of cocktails with Ninkasi Canned Cocktails from Eugene, Ore., including most recently a rum punch. “We lightly carbonated this one to make it more quenchable, more quaffable,” he says. Indeed, punch’s reputation going all the way back to pre-Victorian England is “quenchable and quaffable,” and easily accessible.
Danielle Leavell, master distiller and owner of Astraea Spirits in Seattle, agrees with Morgenthaler. “It’s really about what you pair it with. You can get a big piney, herbal gin that’s going to almost reflect a Christmas tree — but off of that, all fruit plays so well with gin,” she says. “Oranges, pomegranates, pears — all of them are such natural pairs for gin.”
Leavell started by producing amaro, and the four gins she makes at Astraea are all based on botanicals she harvests in the Pacific Northwest. “I love botanicals and spirits, but I also love things that are versatile. There’s a seasonality to gin that’s lacking in other spirits like vodka. You can certainly mix vodka and it’s very neutral, but gin feels like wine to me,” she says. “It’s dependent on the botanicals and the growing conditions of those things, and that changes the flavors and the profiles you can create.”
Leavell crafts a simple gin punch in keeping with holiday traditions using one of Astraea’s four botanical gins called Meadow, which has bright notes of citrus, chamomile, and lemon verbena.
Astraea Holiday Gin Punch by Danielle Leavell
- 1 bottle Champagne, Prosecco, or other sparkling wine
- 8 ounces pomegranate juice
- 8 ounces Astraea Meadow Gin
- 4 ounces blood orange juice
- 4-6 blood oranges, thinly sliced
- 1 cup pomegranate seeds
- 4-6 sprigs of rosemary, plus more for garnish
- Combine all ingredients together in a punch bowl. Stir to combine.
- Serve over ice with a sprig of rosemary.
Store-bought eggnog has simply never done justice to the beverage, according to Morgenthaler. Eggnog isn’t all that hard to whip up, and over-sugared grocery store versions with too many added preservatives leave a lot to be desired when it comes to depth of flavor. Needless to say, as a holiday beverage, homemade eggnog deserves a little more consideration.
The drink’s history comes from medieval England at a time when milk, eggs, and sherry were in short supply among common folk. So, when they were available, a recipe combining the three ingredients was produced in the form of eggnog — a drink traditionally used to toast to prosperity and good health.
By the time the beverage made it to America with its many farms, milk and eggs were ready sources of protein and rum was much easier to attain than sherry and relatively inexpensive, so the blend of eggnog and rum became a more common tipple that remains a favorite today.
Aged eggnog became trendy for a while but most bartenders, Morganthaler and Delahunty among them, think that a couple of days of aging works better than a couple of months.
“There are a lot of diminishing returns with aging eggnog,” says Morgenthaler. “It gets much better after a few days of making it, but after that, it doesn’t really taste a whole lot better.” He says that storage of aged eggnog can become a problem, too.
“I was an early champion of eggnog,” he says. “But when you said ‘eggnog,’ people thought you were talking about the stuff in the carton.” Before he opened Pacific Standard, Morganthaler ran the bar at Clyde Common, a once-popular, now closed restaurant and bar in Portland where he worked to change people’s minds about the traditional dairy-based drink.
“Our eggnog really changed a lot of perceptions on what it was and what it could be,” Morganthaler says. “Now, you’re seeing inventive eggnog by different bartenders all the time. You’ll see 100 percent Cognac eggnogs, bourbon eggnogs, sherry eggnogs.”
Morganthaler’s rendition employs a surprising yet delightful split-base of tequila and sherry; according to Morgenthaler’s eponymous website, the blend of the two is far less sweet than your typical ‘nog. “Eggnog gets a bad rap as a thick, heavy, intense beverage,” he says. “Our recipe calls for using a blender and keeps it light and silky.”.
Clyde Common’s Anejo Tequila and Amontillado Sherry Eggnog by Jeffrey Morgenthaler
- 2 large eggs
- 3 ounces superfine or baker’s sugar
- 2 ounces añejo tequila
- 2 ½ ounces amontillado sherry
- 6 ounces whole milk
- 4 ounces heavy cream
- In a stand mixer or blender on low speed, beat eggs until smooth.
- Slowly add sugar until incorporated and dissolved.
- Slowly add sherry, tequila, milk, and cream.
- Refrigerate overnight and serve in small chilled cups.
- Dust with fresh nutmeg before serving.
A Christmas Cocktail
Aside from the traditional holiday recipes that have filled our glasses for generations, today’s bartenders are crafting their own modern recipes to match the holiday spirit — and creating new traditions in the process. Michael Delahunty, bartender and owner of The Local in Camarillo, Calif., is an Irish immigrant who started pouring pints at an early age “back home,” as he calls it. During the holidays, he makes a number of seasonal cocktails, including a sangria. “That is the one that I gravitate towards,” he says. “Gin is massively popular in Ireland and I love good gin, but it was that warm or hot sangria with cinnamon, much more Spanish- or Portuguese-influenced, and I loved it.”
An ancient cocktail in its own right, the Old Fashioned is also a popular order at The Local, becoming more so as autumn begins. “I make a sweet potato Old Fashioned that’s so tasty using a lovely sweet potato liqueur and some sweet potato purée,” Delahunty says. As fall and holiday foods start to appear on menus, he tries to match their flavors. “I’d start with that warm and aromatic Sangria, and then I want to look around the table and match my cocktail with what I see there, and at the holidays, that sweet potato is on the plate,” he says.
His sweet potato Old Fashioned has become a signature drink and is right at home on any holiday table. “The sweet potato liqueur is the important part,” he says. “We use one called Corbin Cash out of Atwater, Calif., up north that’s really great.”
Sweet Potato Old Fashioned by Mike Delahunty
- 2 ounces High West Double Rye
- ½ ounce Corbin Cash Sweet Potato Liqueur
- ¼ ounce sweet potato purée (homemade or store-bought)
- ⅛-¼ ounce maple syrup
- Dash of black walnut bitters
- Sweet potato purée
- 1 baked sweet potato
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ cup sugar
- Add all ingredients into a mixing glass. Stir to chill and dilute.
- Serve in a rocks glass with one large ice block
- Garnish with fresh nutmeg and dispensed orange peel.
Leavell also prepares riffs on classic cocktails during the holidays, including a Mulled Negroni, which involves infusing Astraea gin with holiday baking spices.
Holiday Mulled Negroni by Danielle Leavell, Astraea Spirits
- 2 shots of spiced gin (recipe follows)
- 1 shot Campari
- 1 shot Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
- If serving over ice, fill a glass with ice and all ingredients. Stir to combine.
- Or, combine ingredients in a shaker filled with ice, shake to combine, and strain into a coupe glass.
- Garnish with rosemary sprig and brûléed orange slice.
Spiced Gin Recipe
- 3 ounces cinnamon sticks
- 5 whole nutmegs
- 2/3 cup fresh orange peel
- 2/3 cup fresh lemon peel
- 1/4 cup allspice berries
- 1/4 cup whole cloves
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
- 750-milliliter bottle of gin
- Place cinnamon sticks and nutmegs in a Ziplock bag and pound the spices with a kitchen mallet.
- Place crushed spices in a bowl and add the citrus peels, allspice berries, cloves, and ginger to mix. Thoroughly combine.
- Place 2-3 tablespoons of spice mixture in a muslin bag or double cheesecloth and secure with string. One muslin bag will spice one 750-milliliter bottle of gin.
- Combine one spice bag with a bottle of gin and let rest for 24 hours or to your desired level of mulling.
- When ready, remove the spice bag and filter your spiced gin through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove any odd bits. Pour back into the bottle.
Crafting great holiday cocktails is all about combining traditions of the past with modern influences. Finding the right blend is all about preference, of course — but it’s also about that memory you want to evoke, or the flavor profile you want to create for guests. Happy holidays, and cheers, indeed.