Wanna know an easy way to impress holiday guests this season? By mastering a handful of classic holiday cocktails you can whip up in a moment’s notice — with things you already (or should already) have in your bar. Because here’s the thing when it comes to the holidays: you already have enough on your plate without monkeying around with specialty drinks that require an extra 25 ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a fancy, festive drink, and have spent plenty of time infusing spirits, concocting simple syrups, aging shrubs, and mixing up punches. But nothing tops the cool factor of serving up a classic drink like it ain’t no thing.
Make Entertaining a Breeze With These 4 Classic Holiday Cocktails
I’m going over 4 of my favorites for the holiday season, covering rye, gin, bourbon and vodka. What’s even better is that all of these holiday cocktails are ridiculously easy, so you’ll be playing master mixologist to your friends in no time flat. Ready? Let’s dive in!
Every good classic cocktail recipe list for the holiday’s should start with a Manhattan. There’s just something about a whiskey drink that screams festive to me. This is the only thing you REALLY need to know about this classic though: Proper Manhattans (in my humble opinion) should only be made with high-quality maraschino cherries. If you don’t have them, don’t bother. Harsh, but true.
Homemade? Sure, if you have the skills and time, but I opt for Luxardo cherries and always have a jar in my bar. One taste and you will 100% understand why. And never, ever let one of those sub-par bright red, chemical laden “I don’t know what this actually is” cherries touch your lips again. BLECH.
And yes, they’re flipping expensive. But guess what? You’re not sitting on the couch on Saturday nights downing jars of them. You’re plopping a few here and there in a cocktail (note from Joanna: unless you live with Sean because sometimes he snacks on them). Also, they keep forever. So suck it up and think of that $18 jar of deliciousness the same as you would when stocking your bar with vermouth or bitters. Speaking of which, let’s get to the recipe:
Classic Manhattan cocktail recipe:
- 2 oz Rye whiskey (Bourbon or similar whiskey is also acceptable, but rye is the classic ingredient)
- 1 oz Sweet vermouth (don’t even think about using dry vermouth. Just don’t!)
- 1-2 dashes angostura bitters
Combine whiskey, vermouth and bitters in a cocktail mixer or shaker with ice. Using a long handled spoon, stir until chilled. Serve the drink “up” by straining into a coup or martini glass with no ice. Top with 1-3 Luxardo (or similar quality) maraschino cherries.
Optional flair: before pouring your drink, put a bar spoon of the cherry syrup into the bottom of the glass. It gives a tiny bit of extra sweetness and dimension to the drink. You can also garnish with a rosemary sprig for some extra holiday festiveness.
The Hot Toddy
While we’re on the subject of whiskey, we might as well talk about hot toddies. No classic holiday drink list is complete without something warm, and hot toddies are a) dead simple to make, and b) require ingredients you most certainly already have on hand. I can’t think of a better way to spend a chilly holiday evening than with a toasty toddy in hand.
Classic Hot Toddy cocktail recipe:
- 1 oz bourbon
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- Hot water
Pour bourbon, honey and lemon juice in a handled cocktail mug. Top with hot water and stir until honey is dissolved.
Optional flair: Substitute maple syrup for honey and top with a cinnamon stick, star anise or dried citrus. I keep Dardimon’s blood orange California crisps on hand just for this purpose.
You’re probably thinking the next classic cocktail on the list is a martini, and you’re right… sort of. Let me introduce you to the oft forgotten Gibson. Gibsons used to be all the rage (and are starting to make a comeback), but fell out of fashion for a time probably because the ingredient that makes them so special is also controversial: the cocktail onion. Before you wiggle your nose in disgust and scroll down to the next drink recipe, take a minute to hear me out.
Why choose an onion when there are other — one might say — more delicious options for a martini like a briny olive, or refreshing lemon twist? Well, because as delicious as those options are, they just can’t give a martini the same unique complexity and subtle, savory umami flavor. That, and casually saying to your guests “can I make you a Gibson” makes you sound impossibly cool and in-the-know.
The RIGHT cocktail onion makes all the difference in the world though. And it’s also one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of Gibsons on bar menus. In order to have good cocktail onions, you pretty much have to pickle them yourself, which some bars are starting to do. But here’s a tip I learned from Thrillist: you can simply doctor up store-bought pickled cocktail onions for an equally tasty effect. I’m sharing the recipe I use below. Whip up a batch and keep them in your fridge as part of your bar ingredient arsenal.
Classic Gibson cocktail recipe:
- 2 ½ oz Gin (A gin like Plymouth or Sipsmith that isn’t too floral or citrusy is best)
- ½ oz dry vermouth (opt for one that is more savory and vegetal like Noilly Prat or Vermouth Routin Dry)
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until chilled and strain into a martini glass.
Optional flair: If you have high-quality or homemade cocktail onions, add a bar spoon of the brine to the drink for extra savoriness and dimension. Still feeling weird about onions? Try other picked vegetables like carrots or beans. Trader Joe’s makes an excellent pre-skewered option called “cocktail stirs” that combine pickles, onions, carrots and beans.
“Doctored” cocktail onions:
Drain and thoroughly rinse store-bought, pickled cocktail onions. Mix up a brine with equal parts water and apple cider or champagne vinegar (about ½ cup of each).
To the brine add:
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 3 tsp juniper berries
- 8-10 cardamom pods
- ¼ tsp sugar
Stir to combine and add rinsed cocktail onions. Store in fridge. Onions will take on the full flavor of the spices in about a week.
The White Russian
This is the long forgotten classic cocktail that was thrust back into the mainstream for a time by the big Lebowski. And aren’t we all so happy it was.
White Russians have always been a favorite of mine around the holidays because of their decadent and creamy profile. For a drink that’s shockingly easy to make, it sure does make a statement. Plus, it’s an unexpected option to offer guests, and rarely gets an “I’ll pass.” People just like ‘em but never seem to think of ordering them on their own.
Classic White Russian cocktail recipe:
- 1 oz Kahlua (or similar coffee liqueur)
- 2 oz vodka
- 1- 1 ½ oz cream
Mix Kahlua and vodka in a low ball glass with ice. Top with cream.
Optional flair: Pre-mix your cream with a splash of vanilla and/or dust the top with cinnamon, cocoa powder or nutmeg.
Well, there you have it. Four classic holiday cocktails that are sure to impress guests this season. Which one do you think you’ll master first??