Serious Eats: Drinks

Cocktail 101: Christmas Drinking Traditions

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[Photographs: Michael Dietsch]

Winter has arrived, and Christmas is nipping at its nose. This week, I'm going to take a brief look at a few wintery drinking rituals that I hope will help to warm you and yours this holiday season.

Wassail

A tradition once so popular it inspired a Christmas carol, wassail refers to both a mulled punch, normally served hot, and a rather strange superstitious ritual, one that involves "waking up" apple trees in mid-winter to encourage them to produce a bumper crop the following autumn.

Whether you roam through your town, banging on pots and serenading the shrubbery is your own business—I'll have no part in it. I'm here to talk about the punch.

Wassail starts with mulled cider (the hard stuff), wine, sherry, or ale. Add fruit: oranges and baked apples are both customary, either together or individually. Finally, spice it up with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger—in other words, the warm winter spices you associate with Christmas. Heck, given its reliance on these same spices, a dose of Angostura bitters wouldn't be out of place, though it's hardly traditional.

Get the recipe! »

Port and Blue Cheese

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[Photograph: Stilton cheese with port from Shutterstock]

I don't have any idea of the origins of this holiday treat, except that it's an English tradition that arose from the sheer deliciousness of the combination. Now, I don't normally like port that much on its own. It's great in cocktails, such as the Princeton, but for me, it's just a little too sweet to drink unaccompanied. However, it's that sweetness that makes it the perfect foil for funky, salty Stilton. Add a couple of handfuls of walnuts on the side, and you've just described the dessert plate my wife and I have come to love on Christmas Day.

Vintage port will set you back a bit more than non-vintage bottlings, and it's probably obvious that older port is generally more expensive than younger. A range of offerings are available. I prefer to use something like Sandeman, which is fairly inexpensive, for cooking and cocktails, and buy a 10- or 20-year-old non-vintage to accompany Stilton. Dow, Graham, and Fonseca are good brands to look for here.

Port is a wine, and should be treated as such. Once you open a bottle, refrigerate it, and try to finish it within two to three weeks, so it doesn't oxidize on you.

Aquavit

A classic Scandanavian tradition, a chilled sip of aquavit is thought to aid in the digestion of rich holiday foods while also warming the blood. Aquavit is distilled from either grain or potatoes, depending on where it's made, and it's always flavored with a variety of botanicals—caraway and dill are common. Its savory flavors mean that it pairs well with food—it's one of the few spirits that does so. Fatty foods and those with robust, rich flavors are among the best pairings with aquavit—think pickled herring, salmon, rye bread, and rich cheeses. Consider serving aquavit alongside appetizer plates or mid-course nibbles.

Although the U.S. market doesn't import a lot of aquavit, some strong brands are represented here: Linie and Aalborg should be pretty easy to find. On the domestic front, you'll find Krogstad from Portland, Oregon, and North Shore, from Chicagoland.

What are your holiday drinking traditions?

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He is a proud new father, boozologist, and cocktail curmudgeon. He lives in Providence. You can follow him on twitter at @dietsch.

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