Ultimate Guide to Festive Cocktails
It’s that time of year.. festive cocktail season
The ultimate guide to creating and serving unique holiday cocktails
My creative side perks up when it comes to planning holiday parties and menus. I especially love researching beautiful tasty festive cocktails to wow my guests.
Yet, I found myself in a rabbit hole of cocktail options this year as I tried to find the perfect festive cocktail and I started wondering – what is the most Christmassy drink? I also wanted cocktail options using ingredients and spirits I have in my bar, but while searching for these drinks I found myself wondering what exactly is a cocktail?
The information was fascinating and now I have fun facts to share at my next dinner party.
I put together what I found in the post – including what makes a cocktail… well a cocktail and what festive ingredients to stock your bar with so you can create the ultimate festive cocktail this season!
Get Your Bread and Circus On
Semel in anno licet insanire is the Latin phrase for what the Romans used to justify the libations, inhibition, and euphoria during festive times; specifically Carnival time – it means Once a year it is proper to be crazy
The release of inhibitions and public revelry is a well developed social practice meant to unite people and equalize society in a sense. The importance of bringing people together during holidays, festivals, fairs, or times of mourning is well documented back to Roman times. This idea known as panem et circenses in Latin translates to what you may know from the Hunger Games trilogy as “bread and circuses”. Literally bread (food) and entertainment provided by the government in order to keep the peace amongst the people.
Read for more info: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Some Structural Characteristics of Group Drinking.” Human Development, vol. 11, no. 3, S. Karger AG, 1968, pp. 201–16, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26761722.
The purpose of encouraging drinks and festivities ultimately bonds people through experience, memories, or other close encounters – ideally resulting in a boost in morale and contentment.
What do eggs, and cocktails have to do with festivities?
The choice of drink for the Romans was known as Falernian wine, and it is the stuff of legend!
Aside from the god of wine known as Bacchus visiting a hardworking farmer name Falernus outside of Naples, Italy some time ago – the wine known as Falernian is likely a varietal wine made from a grape known as Aminea Gemina on three vineyards covering the mountain slope of Mt. Massico 30 miles north of Naples. This wine was the shit!
It had such a legendary following it was written about for centuries! The year 121 B.C. was a particularly great vintage – too bad we missed out.
As our drinking habits and gatherings evolved and spread geographically it was only natural we picked up a few more variations in alcohol along the way. Perhaps there was a sense of boredom over the idea of only drinking wine because as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it “Falernian wine is just juice from a bunch of grapes”.
Appropriately enough, the home of Carnival season, a time of year where acting crazy is strongly encouraged, may well have been the originator of the cocktail.
In 1830, an apothecary (aka pharmacist) from New Orleans named Antoine Amédée Peychaud (who is the same man behind the Peychaud bitters) created a brandy and bitters cocktail by serving it in an eggcup. The theory suggests there was mispronunciation of the French word for eggcup coquetier – which depending on the dialect may sound like “coke-eet-yeh” in French or more like “coc-tee” in French Canadian dialect or a stronger “coke – tay” in English.
Even though the concept of a cocktail had already appeared a few times in print. Once in 1803 from a New Hampshire newspaper that referenced “a glass of cocktail” being “excellent for the head” if you were hungover and another reference in 1806 from a New York political paper that describes cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind – sugar, water, and bitters”. Perhaps the method of serving it in such a novel and neat vessel is the reason for its rise in popularity. Who doesn’t feel fancy while sipping a Martini? And the sheer selection of cocktail glasses that have evolved since then means each cocktail should be treated as creations to be admired.
Nothing good ever happens after 2am…
Cocktails cure hangovers?
According to detailed research done by author or more specifically Spirits Historian, David Wondrich, who wrote Imbibe, a homage to Jerry Thomas who he affectionately refers to as a drink “professor” – the origin of the cocktail likely dates back to the 1690s and early 1700s when a cocktail was prescribed as an “Elixir Magnum Stomachicum” or modernly known as – a hangover cure.
As with our apothecary and bitter creationist, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, you’ll see his famous eggcup coquetier “cocktail” combined brandy and bitters. The use of bitters is what defines a cocktail, their absence would result in a drink simply known as ‘sling’. The word ‘sling’ stems from the German transitive verb “to devour”- verschlingen – but I want to note here: according to Wikipedia and the diffordsguide.com the etymology of ‘sling’ was traced from schlingen meaning “to swallow” , however, upon further investigation it appears the German verb for swallow is Schluck. It would consider devouring a drink to be a better descriptor of the act.
During the 17th century another apothecary, Richard Stoughton, or the cocktail OG, was creating these hangover cures and selling them from his shop located south of London Bridge (is anyone else getting major Master Raymond vibes from Outlander, Season 2?). Richard also has a brand of bitters with his name, known as Stoughton’s Bitters which you can recreate for yourself. Essentially, bitters are flavoured extracts created by infusing botanicals like gentian root, citrus peels, wormwood, barks, seeds and aromatic spices together like cinnamon, star anise, cardamon etc with alcohol. There are a number of varieties and natural ingredients that can be blended together and were used to treat various ailments long before the invention of a drug like ibuprofen. The fact Richard Stoughton’s name is still associated with bitters is a testament to his skill in making them effective – and his use of advertising .
The second key feature of a cocktail is balancing these bitters with sugar. During the late 17th century, the recommended brandy and Canary wine (a sweet white wine) would be enough to compliment the bitter flavor of – you guessed it – the bitters. I think it goes without saying – Pharmacists are badass. And thanks to a few hangover cures – there are now 77 IBA recognized cocktails in a 1.81 (US) trillion dollar a year industry.
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What classifies a drink as a festive cocktail ?
Whereas a sling is composed of a spirit, water and sugar, the differentiating ingredient between a sling and a cocktail is the adding a few drops of bitters. The balancing of the sweet or sour from the sugar and liquors with the bitters was originally sold as a cure for hangovers in the late 17th century.
Bitters have been around for hundreds of years and were used (and still can be ) to alleviate digestive ailments. According to some medical professionals, they can still be used today for a health boost to settle an upset stomach, aid in digestion, increase energy, curb sugar cravings and ease stress
The festive component of a cocktail is the creative ways you incorporate flavors associated with the holidays into your drink through the type and combination of liquors and spirits, bitters, garnishes, and stemware.
Classic Festive Cocktails You Should Know How to Make For the Holidays
The following cocktails are great for any occasion, not just the holidays, because with a few swaps and additions, you can have created a whole new cocktail built from the original. Based on the must have book for any drink connoisseur, Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald et focuses on the fundamentals of cocktail making. By understanding the formula to making a great cocktail you can play around with ingredients to adjust its core flavours, balance out it’s tastes, and add dimension to the cocktail with seasoning. For a detailed infographic of what you can make as a result of knowing these cocktails see this post on VinePair. You can even purchase the infographic as a poster to have as reference in your bar, which is super helpful.
To create the festive wow factor to any of these cocktails, add a holiday related garnish like a crushed candy cane rim, drizzle of white chocolate, sprig of pine (aka rip a branch off your tree), cinnamon stick or fresh cranberries.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I put together a curated list of festive cocktails that reflect each of the classics, but with a holiday twist.