Holiday Cocktails for a Crowd

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holiday cocktails
Photos by Suzanne Husky/Walter Kim

Happy holidays! December has barely begun, but the icicle lights are twinkling from your neighbor's porch, your corner dive has roped the bar mirror with tinsel, and you can't dash into the supermarket for a quart of eggnog without drowning in the Destiny's Child version of "The Little Drummer Boy." Who wouldn't need a drink to get through to New Year's?

These long (and, until the solstice on the 23rd, getting longer) dark nights have one great solace: the hot toddy. Something hot, something sweet, something spiced, something strong: a winter warmer to toast you down to your toes. Such drinks can be made in quantity and set out in a slow-cooker (or crock pot) to stay warm, perfuming your whole house like holiday heaven. Certain ones, like the peppermint hot chocolate and bourbon cider described below, can be made non-alcoholic, with a bottle on the side so guests can spike to taste (or not).

The only drawback? These aren't wild and crazy drinks; a couple rounds of mulled wine and your guests will want only to snuggle up like kittens and take a nice cozy nap in front of the fire. Then again, a little cuddling might be just right at this time of year; why else the velvet pants, silk shirts, and cashmere sweaters, if not for a little negus-fueled petting? If it worked for Mrs. Fezziwig, it can work for you.

Mulled Wine
The reward for freezing through a damp, grey winter in Paris? Hot wine, known as vin chaud, served in small stemmed glasses topped with a slice of orange, aromatically steaming in every corner bar. Whether you call it mulled wine, vin chaud, or gluhwein, it boils down to the same thing: red wine, lightly sweetened and simmered gently with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and lemon or orange peel, tastingly beautifully of winter.


A few tricks: always use fresh, whole spices (cinnamon sticks, whole allspice berries, whole cloves), since powdered spices can clump up and muddy the drink. (No reason to buy a fancy tin of "mulling spices" either; get them by the inexpensive bagful in the bulk department of your favorite grocery store and combine to taste at home.) Shave off thin curls of citrus peel, colored part only, without the bitter white pith. For the best flavor, make a simple syrup of 1 part water to 1 part sugar (or honey). Bring this to a simmer in a medium pot. When sugar is dissolved, add your spices and peels, and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Fill a larger pot with as much decent, robust red wine as you need. (Don't use sour stuff that's been sitting open on the counter for a week, and don't use 2-Buck Chuck; there's not enough sugar and cinnamon in the world to make that taste good.) Add the spice syrup and bring to just under a boil. Let it warm over low heat for 10-15 minutes. Taste for sweetness and balance. Serve topped with thin slices of orange or lemon. Peg each fruit slice with a few cloves.

A Regency-era drink that crops up in many 18th and 19th century novels, from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Basically, it's a variation on the mulled wine above, using a strong, sweet, fortified wine, usually port, instead regular red wine. The Beagle, a hot spot in New York City's East Village, makes theirs with Madeira (George Washington's favored tipple), updated with star anise. Typically, this would have been heated by plunging a hot poker into the drink. In a large, heavy pot, combine 1 bottle of ruby port or Madeira with sugar to taste (start with 1 1/2 tablespoons and add from there) and the rind and juice of one lemon, and 3 "stars" of star anise. Heat until steaming (but not boiling). Port packs a punch; you'll probably want to thin this with 1 cup very hot water. Taste for balance. Serve topped with thin slices of lemon.


Candy-Cane Hot Cocoa
Is this a cocktail or a dessert? If anyone goes caroling any more, this is the drink you want warming you up before and after all those choruses of Good King Wenceslas. At this time of year, it's also a fun after-meal alternative. By mid-December, everyone's been hitting the cookie parties pretty hard. Save yourself the time and butter and bring out steaming mugs of this for dessert instead. If you're not happy unless you have a kitchen project in hand, make homemade marshmallows; otherwise, just put out a bowl of fresh whipped cream (use Straus Family Creamery's organic cream in the fat little glass bottle: the best.)

Now, however much watery Swiss Miss out of the foil packet may inspire nostalgia for ice-rinks past, do not use cocoa mix to make this. You know what you need to make really delicious hot cocoa? Three things: milk, unsweetened cocoa powder, and sugar. You put these things in a pot. You heat them up. You whisk them around a little until they're smooth and steaming, and there! You did it.

If you want a very rich drink, you can make hot chocolate from (what else?) milk, cream, and chopped chocolate. But honestly, drinking this kind of chocolate can be like scarfing a whole handful of melted truffles. Delicious, yes, but packing a wallop. What you want for a party is a session drink, something you can sip by the mugful without going into cocoa-butter overload.

So, to make good hot cocoa, start with good, unsweetened cocoa powder; I like Droste, Valhrona, or Guittard. (Yes, Hershey's and Nestle's are cheaper and always available, but they're also bland as dust.) Whole milk makes the tastiest cocoa, but if you're using 1% or 2%, you can boost the flavor by using light-brown sugar instead of white. (Skim milk makes a flat-tasting, watery cocoa.) You can add a little grated semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate for richness, a splash of vanilla extract for extra flavor. If you must use a mix, Ghirardelli's sweet ground chocolate and cocoa is good, if a little oversweet for a grown-up beverage like this. And of course, those who don't imbibe can drink it straight; making it from scratch makes it good enough to drink with nothing more than a marshmallow or cool dollop of cream on top.

How to do it: In a large saucepan over medium heat, whisk together 1 cup water with 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 1/4 cups sugar. Whisk vigorously until mixture boils and comes together into a hot-fudgey syrup. Whisk in 1 gallon regular milk. Heat until steaming (don't boil) and taste for sweetness, adding more sugar as necessary. Remove from heat. Add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. For non-alcoholic cocoa, add 1 tablespoon peppermint extract, or to taste. For spiked cocoa, add a few gluggs of peppermint schnapps, or just put out the bottle and let guests spike to taste. Pour into mugs and hang a mini-candy cane off the rim. Top with marshmallows or fresh whipped cream.


Bourbon Cider

Do you really need a recipe? Hot or cold apple cider, spiked with good bourbon. If you're serving it cold, add a dash of cinnamon to a saucerful of sugar. Run a halved orange around the rim of each glass, then dunk the rim in cinnamon sugar. Shake the cider and bourbon together (or just pour in and stir) and pour into the rimmed glass.

For mulled bourbon cider, warm up your cider until hot but not boiling. Add a handful of cinnamon sticks and a few peel-on, thin slices of orange. Do not let the cider boil! Pour into mugs and top up with bourbon to taste, putting a cinnamon stick in each mug. For best results, use fresh, refrigerated cider (I love the cider made by Rainbow Orchard in Camino, available at many local farmers' markets), not apple juice or jarred cider.


Wakeup Eggnog

Not every holiday cocktail needs to be warm. What this drink lacks in heat, it more than makes up for in richness. This is the cashmere of holiday drinks: lush, lavish, and posh. Now, egg nog, like fruitcake, has a bad reputation, mostly because the cheap stuff you find in the supermarket is just awful, full of fake flavorings and gunky thickeners. Read the ingredients and you will, rightfully, recoil. You have two options for good nog: make it yourself--not so hard if you've ever made custard--using this eggnog recipe, or Anna Thomas's eggnog recipe, a favorite of erotica writer and cultural critic Susie Bright. Or, buy a few quarts of the pale, lovely, elegant eggnog made by Straus Family Creamery. The ingredients are what you'd use at home: milk, cream, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, all organic, and nothing else.


Whichever recipe you choose, make it with half the amount of rum, bourbon, or whiskey called for, substituting a coffee liqueur like Kahlua for the other half. (Or just put out the Kahlua bottle alongside the bowl and let guests add to taste.) It's the perfect holiday pick-me-up; while the milk, cream, and alcohol relaxes you, the caffeine and sugar perk you up. This is the kind of brunch drink that seems like a great idea at the time, but be warned: it can flatten your guests for the rest of the day. But if you ever needed an excuse for an all-day Christmas movie-marathon ("Herbie doesn't like to make toys!"), a generous supply of this eggnog will supply it. Cheers!