Unlike, say, Thanksgiving's green bean casserole, or Hanukkah latkes, what we drink during the winter season isn't necessarily rooted in immovable tradition and high-pressure expectation.
And while a glass of supermarket eggnog never goes out of style for some folks, there's plenty of room for innovation in holiday cocktails.
Swapping out spirits, going homemade with mixers, adding a new flavor profile with spices or different bitters - all can improve upon or reinvigorate the classics without radically disturbing the toddy-loving status quo.
After all, these traditions exist for good reason. Consider that toddy: There's a real luxury in slowly sipping a hot drink, something that many of us don't have time to do on most days. But hot beverages can also be pedestrian and overly sweet.
At Aldine, Jennifer Sabatino is serving Hot Buttered Rye, a twist on the traditional hot buttered rum. As melting Chinese five-spice and vanilla compound butter pools in the mug, it's topped with rye whiskey and a cap of unsweetened whipped cream ("pourable but not ploppy," she specifies), for a sophisticated tipple that Sabatino can't get enough of.
"I bring it to every holiday party I go to and it makes me very popular," she said.
As for her spirit of choice, she likes to use Wild Turkey 101, but warns that people might not walk out of the party steadily. For a lighter-weight crowd, Overholt or Bulleit will do.
Aldine is also serving a hot cocoa that chef George Sabatino masterminded for last year's Winterfest. Cinnamon and star anise steep in farm-fresh milk before the cocoa gets whisked in. A shot of Sailor Jerry's rum and a topping of unsweetened whipped cream laced with crushed soft peppermints bring it all home.
Mulled wine is easy to make and keep warm on the stove or even in a slow cooker for the length of a holiday celebration. At Frankford Hall, it's a potent swirl of merlot, orange juice, brandy, and sweet spices. The restaurant goes through 100 liters a week every winter - about 133 bottles of wine - making it a top seller through the season. Any combination of citrus peel and juice, sugar, and spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, and even bay leaves can be employed for an off-the-cuff DIY version.
Supposing there's a way to jettison the carton of eggnog without offending anyone, there are other ways to use those undeniably Christmas-y flavors to good effect. Add a splash of flavor, like pumpkin or ginger or chai. Try a different spirit in the mix - bourbon, rye, or even a flavored liqueur.
Another option is to switch it up with the Tom and Jerry, says Vernick bartender JB Bernstein. This sweet, hot drink of rum and brandy with egg was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps one reason it fell out of favor is that it can be a challenge to prepare, he says. "If you're not careful you can end up with an omelet instead of a cocktail. But when it's done right, it's great."
At Vernick, he's developing another variation, an eggnog in the style of milk punch, transforming the unctuous thickness into a clear, more drinkable incarnation.
When in doubt, punch is the way to go, Bernstein says. "Punch can be anything. You need something with a little sweetness, something sparkling, some kind of citrus and some kind of spirit. It's just a matter of putting the right proportions in the bowl, and you can keep adding as you go to make it right." For his own holiday celebration, he's making one called the Charles Bridge with the spicy Czech liqueur Becherovka, Cocchi Americano, simple syrup, white grapefruit juice, and cava.
The beauty of punch, of course, is the make-ahead and self-serve aspect, which cuts down on work for the host. Plus, punch only improves as the ingredients meld over time. It can be a winter sangria, as served at Avalon: moscato, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, simple syrup, and fresh fruit.
Pub & Kitchen's Ichabod is a cross between mulled cider and a punch. "I'm a big fan of rum punch but instead of citrus here, I used apple cider," says bartender Ed Hackett. With a healthy dose of Sailor Jerry rum, plus cider, brown sugar, and a few dashes of bitters, it's a bracing and aromatic drink that's a lot less sweet than it sounds. It can be served warm or cold on the rocks.
Another of Hackett's favorite tricks to enliven the bar this time of year is to include tequila, a spirit most people forgo after Labor Day. "Rather than a standard Poinsettia punch, I'll add tequila with sparkling wine and cranberry juice, and it gets people talking."
Staying stocked with a few key punch ingredients can help in case of a spontaneous celebration. A good bottle of sparkling wine, lemons and limes, sparkling water, and a bottle of favorite juice or cider are good staples.
And for those who elect to forgo the booze - or for those who've made it a Christmas to remember by noon - a well-crafted mocktail always comes in handy.
And if your family insists on your great-grandmother's glög, well then, carry on.
Makes 8-10 servings
1 bottle (750 ml) of your favorite merlot
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup orange juice (no pulp)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1. Pour all ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat while whisking gently. Do not boil.
2. Strain before serving. You can also make and keep it in a slow cooker.
Makes 8 servingsEndTextStartText
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
Very hot water (almost boiling)
Fresh unsweetened whipped creamEndTextStartText
1. Melt butter and stir in 5-spice powder, brown sugar, vanilla, salt, and cayenne. Transfer butter mixture to the refrigerator and chill until solid.
2. Spoon 1 tablespoon butter into each mug. Top with enough hot water to melt butter.
3. Add 2 ounces rye to each mug and top with a spoonful of whipped cream. Serve hot.
Makes 32 servingsEndTextStartText
1 bottle of Sailor Jerry rum
1 liter water
1 box light brown sugar
750 milliliters local apple cider
A few dashes of Tiki or Angostura bitters
Apple slices and freshly grated nutmeg for garnishEndTextStartText
1. Combine rum, water, sugar, cider, and bitters. Allow to sit a few hours or overnight.
2. Add ice to the punch bowl before serving, and garnish each glass with apple slices and nutmeg.
Makes 4-6 servingsEndTextStartText
1 quart whole milk
2 cinnamon sticks
3 whole star anise
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
Pinch kosher salt
Sailor Jerry's rum
Unsweetened whipped creamEndTextStartText
1. In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, combine whole milk, cinnamon sticks, anise, nutmeg, and sugar. Bring to a gentle simmer over a medium-low flame, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved.
2. Turn off heat and allow mixture to steep for 20 minutes.
3. Whisk in cocoa powder and salt and allow to steep for another 20 minutes. Strain and discard solids.
4. To serve, heat cocoa mixture to a gentle simmer and add 6 ounces of cocoa to 2 ounces rum. Top with whipped cream.