Playing host this holiday season doesn't have to be a headache. Setting up a festive, well-stocked bar without needing to purchase cartfuls of mixers or spirits not already in your bar is possible, and plenty of prep can be done ahead to save time and stress.
To find out how, we sat down with two of the region's top cocktail experts: Simon Francis Moorby of Hogwash Whiskey Den and Inland Pacific Kitchen; and Renée Cebula of Raising the Bar, a vintage barware shop and expert source on cocktail culture and history. Both also shared several of their favorite festive and seasonal recipes that can spice up any holiday gathering between now and New Year's.
"Of course you want to use quality, but I wouldn't break the bank as far as product goes," Moorby advises. "There are quality products that are far less expensive, like Grey Goose [vodka] and Maker's Mark [whiskey]."
Cebula recommends setting up your bar so guests can have fun making their own drinks (also leaving you free from playing bartender all night) using creatively displayed recipe cards and all the required ingredients, like juice or simple syrups, in ready-to-pour bottles.
"The host can start and then people can see how" to make their own, she says. "You don't have to have a bar, you can do it on a sofa table, buffet or kitchen island."
To simplify the process even more, make a punch.
"Punch is America's first drink, and the beginning of American hospitality," Cebula notes. "It's easy peasy for the host, and people help themselves."
Moorby suggests infusing spirits to take classic recipes to a new level, like the standard old fashioned.
"[Infusions] can be really inexpensive and can take as few as a couple hours to a couple days, and it really transforms your product into something more seasonal," he says.
His wintertime go-to is a chai-infused bourbon, made by steeping several standard tea bags in the spirit, either with heat, using a sous vide device, or letting time do the work.
Both experts also offer tips to ensure those choosing not to consume alcohol aren't left out.
"At your set up for your bar, also have some ginger beer and apple cider because people can take fresh juices over ice and ginger beer," Cebula says. "Have a couple containers of garnishes and everyone can get creative regardless of what's in the glass."
"As far as mocktails go, keeping a quality mixer" on hand is key, Moorby echoes. "If the bar is properly set up, it's really easy to create from that."
By Simon Francis Moorby, Hogwash Whiskey Den
2 ounces Lustau Pedro Ximenez sherry
1 dash Bitterman's Chocolate Molé bitters
1 whole egg
Nutmeg to garnish
Combine sherry, egg and bitters in a Boston shaker. Using an agitator (a protein mixing ball or citrus peels), "dry shake" the concoction vigorously for about 60 seconds, or until sound in tin softens. Next, completely fill the shaker with ice, and shake again for about 60 seconds, or until sound in tin softens. Strain into a coupe glass and microplane fresh nutmeg to garnish.
CHAI OLD FASHIONED
By Simon Francis Moorby, Hogwash Whiskey Den
2 ounces chai-infused bourbon
1/4 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes angostura bitters
Orange peel twist to garnish
Add 1/4 ounce of simple syrup to a mixing glass (a pint glass will do). Add 3 dashes of angostura bitters, and 2 ounces of chai-infused bourbon. Add ice to the combined ingredients and stir with a bar spoon until chilled and diluted. Pour over ice in a rocks glass and finish with a wide piece of orange zest, expressing oils over the glass before sinking.
The centerpiece of this rendition of the American classic is the chai-infused bourbon. I use Four Roses' Yellow Label. It's a high-quality well, but for in-home purposes feel free to choose something more price appropriate. Evan Williams should suffice, but grab the liter.
For the infusion, I've worked several variations. While finer teas are available (there's a wonderful loose chai spice by Firefly at Main Market Co-op), I'm pretty sworn to using the Stash Tea brand.
For 1 liter of infused bourbon, use six tea bags; if using a sous vide method, stick to just three. For the sous vide method, steep for 2 hours at 130 degrees, and be sure to ice bathe the spirits when finished. Without heat, I recommend a 24 to 48-hour infusion in a mason jar. The finished product should be full of aromatics with a dry finish. If you're unable or unsure about infusing, make a chai simple syrup (1:1 water to sugar ratio).
GEORGE LASSOS THE MOON
Adapted by Renée Cebula, Raising the Bar
2 ounces gin
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2-3/4 ounce clove-infused syrup (see below)
2-3 dashes absinthe
Dried lemon wheel to garnish (see below)
Measure ingredients into a shaker, add ice. Shake for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Float the prepared dried lemon wheel to garnish.
Bring to boil 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add 1/4 cup whole cloves. Remove from heat and infuse for 1 hour. Strain, discard cloves, and store syrup in a glass bottle. Refrigerate.
Dried Lemon Wheel
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Thinly slice lemons and place on parchment paper lined baking sheet. Mix 1/4 cup sugar with 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger and a dash of sea salt. Sprinkle slices with sugar mixture. Bake for 2.5 to 3 hours until dry. Turn slices halfway through baking time. Remove from oven and sprinkle both sides with powdered sugar, transforming the lemon wheels into "moons." The inspiration for this drink is from Temple Distillery.
FISH HOUSE PUNCH
From the Schuylkill Fishing Company; shared by Renée Cebula, Raising the Bar
1 cup sugar
4 lemons, peeled (just the outer zest layer, not the white pith)
1 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 cups black tea, warm
4 cups Jamaican rum
2 cups cognac
1/2 cup peach brandy
Block of ice (make ahead and add citrus wheels, star anise, or other festive garnishes)
The day before or morning of party, add sugar and lemon peels to a large bowl. Massage the peels into the sugar to release the oils. This is called oleo-saccharum. Put into a lidded jar and let set for a minimum of 30 minutes.
To put together the punch, dissolve the oleo-saccharum (sugar and lemon peels) with the warm black tea. Strain out peels. Add lemon juice and all liquors. Add a block of ice to chill. Add freshly grated nutmeg and carefully float lemon wheels. To serve, ladle into punch cups.
Punch was America's first mixed drink. It's easy on the host since you can prepare it hours before guests arrive. And if you're doing punch, why not serve the oldest continuously served punch? Fish House Punch has been served for the holidays (and year-round) since 1732 at the Schuylkill Fishing Company club house in Philadelphia.
GINGER SOUR (mocktail)
By Renée Cebula, Raising the Bar
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup (or use clove-infused syrup)
1 egg white
Luxardo Maraschino cherry garnish
Add lemon juice, syrup and egg white to a shaker. Drop in the spring from a cocktail strainer. Dry shake for 20-30 seconds. Open shaker and add ice. Shake again for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass. Top with ginger beer and add garnish. ♦