Ah, the joys of a relaxed, post-holidays drink. (Don't know about you, but this year's winter solstice just knocked me out.) Put on your new sweater, break out the gifted almond crack and edible chocolate boxes, throw some logs on the fire (but not if a Spare the Air alert is in place) and settle back with a nice wintery libation.
In between January's grim mandate of juice cleanses and gym sweat, there's still the excuse of football playoffs and taking down the holiday decorations to splurge on morning hot chocolate, a good whiskey toddy late in the evening, and the remains of the eggnog any time. For those who imbibe (and of course, we always recommend knowing your limits and partaking to the point of cheer, not wretched excess), most post-holiday spirits can always be improved with some holiday spirits.
In the Bay Area Bites archives, we've got lots of recipes for spiked hot chocolate and bountiful drinks for a crowd. If you've got some time for DIY, skip the kombucha and sauerkraut and make your friends happier with our DIY Manhattan kit, offering how-tos on making your own bitters, sweet vermouth, and cocktail cherries from scratch.
For a long time, our go-to guide for liquid cheer this time of year was Jessica Strand's Holiday Cocktails, a nippy little candy-cane martini of a book full of spirited inspirations (and non-alcoholic ones, too) for winter get-togethers of all sorts. It still has a place on our bar shelf, but now it's got a big sister, this year's very appealing Winter Cocktails by Maria Del Mar Sacasa, with photographs by Tara Striano.
The recipes of Winter Cocktails--hot toddies, eggnogs and other creamy things, punches, tea- and coffee-based drinks, and chilled winter-appropriate cocktails, plus sweet and savory snacks--are fresh, inventive and party-pleasing. Sacasa especially loves the tropical tang of fresh pineapple, and uses it to fine, frothy effect in the Golden Hog (pineapple, vanilla, bacon-infused bourbon, bitters, and a candied bacon garnish); for hot mulled Liquid Gold (pineapple juice, spices, vanilla, dark rum, and brandy, garnished with an Aleppo pepper-dusted grilled pineapple skewer); and in a Pineapple-Infused Spiced Rum. Naturally, there's a Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, a truly delectable-sounding Butterscotch Eggnog, made just like homemade butterscotch pudding, and an intriguing Persian Warmer, white hot chocolate infused with green cardamom and orange zest.
Sacasa gives the requisite nod to the do-it-yourselfers with recipes for herb-, spice-, and citrus-infused liquors and simple syrups that can be used year-round. There are useful recipes for made-from-scratch sour mix and a fresh-tomato Bloody Mary base that's refreshing enough to drink straight (even if fresh tomatoes aren't exactly winter vegetables). But at the same time, she's not afraid to go downmarket as necessary, calling for white zinfandel (yes, the cheap pink stuff) for her mulled white wine and frying up doughnuts made from packaged biscuit mix. It's a rare book indeed that can veer from Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwiches to Roasted Marrow Bones, as Sacasa does in her "Small Bites" chapter.
A few of the drinks here don't seem quite in sync with the theme; what's remotely wintery about sangria, shandy (lager and ginger beer) or margaritas? Then again, Sacasa divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, so adding in a few palm-tree drinks helps make the book even more useful for us mittenless West Coasters. (And the hot toddies and hot chocolates are perfect for Tahoe trips.)
What about drinks that are ready to go as soon as you pull the cork? Bubbles are always festive, (and they go great with Dungeness crab in all its winter permutations), but you don't have to stick with the typical sparkling wines. Instead, try a bottle of Tilted Shed Ciderworks' Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider, small-batch Sonoma hard cider that's been aged in bourbon barrels. It's a first for Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli, the husband and wife team behind Forestville's Tilted Shed, and worth searching out.
Or tickle your tastebuds with Querry, a dry, sparkling hard cider made from pear, apple, and quince that would make a wonderful aperitif for an intimate dinner with friends. It's the latest project for the restlessly experimental Randall Grahm of Santa Cruz's Bonny Doon Vineyards. Racy and almost Riesling-like, it's a pale, elegant accompaniment to charcuterie, Asian foods, even Dungeness crab.
We also love a biodynamically grown French pear cider, Poire Granit, by Eric Bordelet. True to its name, it's vividly reminiscent of pear sorbet, and makes a sublime accompaniment to an icy platter of just-shucked Hog Island oysters. Look for it at Paul Marcus Wines, in Rockridge's Market Hall, or treat your date to a flute or two and a plateau de mer at Zuni Cafe, where it can be found on the list of wines by the glass. There's also a very nice and unexpected "Bee Flight" of naturally sparkling meads on the menu at Epic Roasthouse on The Embarcadero. The shimmering Bay Lights make a pretty backdrop for three golden glasses of honey wine from Point Reyes Station's Heidrun Meadery. The flight includes meads made from California Avocado Blossom, California Orange Blossom, and Hawaiian Christmas Berry honeys.
There's also our wonderful, very local San Francisco Mead Company's mead, made right here in the Bayview and slowly getting wider distribution--they just made it into Whole Foods this month. Whatever you're drinking, raise a toast to the old and ring in the new, with all our best wishes for a sparkling 2014.