Holiday Libations to Cock Your Tail

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Hot drink for New Year, Christmas or autumn holidays. Mulled cider or spiced tea or mulled white wine with lemon, apples, cinnamon, anise, cloves.

We won’t be entertaining as usual this holiday season—no packed, festive holiday or New Year’s parties adorned with brimming punchbowls, cheese ball wreaths, or kisses stolen under the mistletoe. But we can still enjoy traditional holiday libations on the porch or around the fire pit with family, close friends, or neighbors. Wassail and eggnog can be served with or without alcohol to include the children as we rally the holiday spirit and toast the end of a difficult year. Mulled wine and hot buttered rum will warm you head to toe as you watch holiday movies by the fire!

According to Derek Brown and Robert Yule in their recent Zoom class, “History in a Glass,” presented as part of Monticello’s virtual Heritage Harvest Festival, the cocktail is a uniquely American invention that has spread around the world. In their book Spirits Sugar Water Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World (2018), they explain that the word ‘cocktail’ first appeared in print in 1803, in the New Hampshire Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper. Although they offer various speculations as to the origin of this word, they assert that the most believable comes from author David Wondrich. “Early bartenders and aristocratic drinkers often lived what was called the sporting life, betting on racehorses and billiards….[Wondrich] discovered an 18th century reference to ginger’s being used as a stimulant to cock a horse’s tail and make them peppier. The insertion point of the ginger was conveniently located just below the tail.” Peppier, indeed! In other words, these drinks will really cock your tail! This vision has forever changed my appreciation of this word. 

The class offered three historic recipes using apple cider and apple brandy, on which many colonial drinks were based. Their “Twelfth Night Punch” is similar to my favorite holiday libation: wassail, or mulled cider, which I shared in our December 2014 issue. To my simple assemblage of whole nutmegs, cinnamon sticks, and a tea infuser of whole allspice and cloves, Brown added a sliced-open-and-scraped vanilla bean, a 6” chunk of peeled fresh ginger, and a whole lemon rind spiral. All of these spices are added to a gallon of (good) cider, which is warmed slowly on the stove or in a slow cooker. Brown also recommended sinking 4 whole apples, baked with cinnamon and brown sugar, into the pot (or just add a tablespoon or two if brown sugar). A splash of apple brandy or applejack in each mug in each serving will warm the cockles of your heart. Applejack is simply apple brandy that has been “jacked” with neutral spirits; Brown recommends Laird’s—the oldest distillery in America—which uses Virginia-grown apples at its distillery in North Garden. Wine can be mulled with similar ingredients, using a base of good red wine instead of cider; a slow cooker is best for this so you don’t boil off the alcohol, and brandy can be added right to the pot. The lid of either should be removed toward the end of mulling to spread the delicious aroma around your home, and clove-studded orange slices may be floated on top for a festive look. 

The other mainstay of holiday libations, of course, is rich, frothy eggnog. The large, cut glass punchbowl full of my father’s strong, freshly made nog was a mainstay at my family’s annual Christmas party. He would ladle it out himself from its place of honor on the living room coffee table, separate from the spread of hand-painted Christmas cookies and canapes on the dining room table. As with the word cocktail, there are many theories as to the etymology of eggnog, but according to Time magazine, “While culinary historians debate its exact lineage, most agree eggnog originated from the early medieval Britain ‘posset,’” which was made with hot milk that was curdled with wine or ale and flavored with spices. By the 13th century, monks were known to drink a posset with eggs and figs” (time.com). In the Middle Ages, posset was used as a cold and flu remedy, and was popular from medieval times to the 19th century. The term ‘nog’ may have come from ‘noggin,’ a wooden cup. In those days it would have been seen as a good source of protein; now we enjoy it sparingly, as it packs up to 400 calories per cup. Still, it is fun to share a toast with our medieval ancestors!

An excellent eggnog recipe from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook—by way of our own editor’s family—is believed to have been served on Christmas morning at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Virginia for over 200 years. After separating a dozen eggs, the yolks are beaten with 1½ cups sugar. To this mixture is added 2 cups of whiskey, 4 oz. rum, 4 oz. brandy, and a quart of cream, mixing thoroughly. The whites of the eggs are then beaten until stiff and added, followed by a pint of freshly whipped cream. And don’t forget to grate some fresh nutmeg on top of each cup! In case you’re wondering, the alcohol “cooks” the eggs. Can’t wait to try this recipe myself this Christmas—I suspect it will rival my father’s!

But what would the holidays be without a bit of bubbly? One of many online “mixology” sites introduced me to the easy, three-ingredient Jingle Juice Punch, courtesy of inspiredbycharm.com. In a glass pitcher or punch bowl, mix one (750 liter) bottle whipped vodka with one bottle of pink champagne or sparkling rosé and one (2 liter) bottle of cherry 7-up. Serve over festive ice cubes made by freezing cranberries and rosemary right in the cubes—or simply garnish with cranberries. And if you want to get really fancy, haul out the cocktail shaker to make a White Christmas martini. Add to a shaker of ice 2 oz. vanilla vodka, 2 oz. white chocolate liqueur, 1 oz. white crème de cacao, and 1 oz. half and half. Pour into a glass whose rim has been dipped in honey, then sugar, and serve with a mini candy cane (inspiredbycharm.com). This will really feel like a party, even if it’s just the two of you!

If you’re coming in from a sleigh ride, a day on the slopes, or a cold winter hike, you might want to make hot buttered rum by muddling 1 tsp. sugar with 2 tsps. soft butter and adding 2 oz. dark rum, a splash of vanilla, a pinch of cinnamon, and hot water to taste. Similarly, the hot toddy is made by mixing hot water with rye whiskey or rum, honey, and lemon juice in quantities to taste. The History in a Glass class also offered a recipe for an apple toddy, made by muddling slices of roast apple with apply brandy, hot water, and confectioners’ sugar. Make your own roast apples by peeling and coring two apples, studding with whole cloves, and roasting with a cinnamon stick in the center at 400 degrees for 30 minutes—or simply buy a jar of spiced apples! Toddies are believed to reduce cold symptoms, but are probably more effective without the alcohol.

Cheers! Salud! Prost! Skol! À votre santé! May your holiday be filled with family, friends, joy, and love.  

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