Spiced Ciders for Your Holiday Table

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[Photograph: Chris Lehault]

I'm always a bit of a stress ball when it comes to picking out booze around the holidays. Half of my family members are hoarders—craft beer junkies who save up prized bottles all year to share at a special occasion. The other half is more laid-back, preferring to pop open a Heineken or sip a few glasses of nondescript red wine. And both of those things are fine. I end up being the cider guy, off in my own little world.

At holidays, I tend to play it pretty reserved and pick the same crowd-pleasing bottles I do every year—approachable ciders that taste great with a rack of pork (but also aren't bad with limp, soggy brussels sprouts.) But this year the gloves are off and I'm excited about the ciders that really feel seasonally appropriate. Those that put the ginger in gingerbread, and the cinnamon in... er... Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I'm talking about spiced ciders, your secret to success at the table this holiday.

Tips for Choosing a Spiced Cider:

If this is your first year getting nerdy about cider, and you are still getting your head around the dry vs. sweet thing, don't worry. As long as you know your cinnamon from your cayenne pepper (a hasty mis-grab that has ruined more than one dish in my kitchen) choosing a spiced cider is nothing to worry about. Here are a few tips to guide you on your way.

Sweeter ciders pair best with baking spices.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and other traditional baking spices usually fare better with dishes that skew a bit more sweet than savory. The same hold true for cider. With pie spices, reach for bottles on the sweeter side to avoid conflicts with tart flavors or harsh tannins.

One to try: Cinnamon ciders can be either too cloying or too tart, but Vander Mill's Totally Roasted cider from Michigan hit the right balance; enough sweetness to support the spice without losing the cider character. It's luscious but drinkable. The key is the trio of cinnamon, vanilla beans, and roasted pecans that evoke sweet potato casserole. If you can't find Vander Mill cider in your area, Winterruption from J.K. Scrumpy makes a fine (and more widely distributed) substitute.

Ginger is the workhorse of spiced ciders.

Ginger and apples are a natural pairing, whether the cider is sweet or dry. Ginger's savory kick makes it the ideal spiced cider to serve with holiday dishes like honey-glazed ham or roast turkey. If you are looking for a foolproof solution that will work throughout your holiday meal, then this is it.

One to try: Several East Coast ginger ciders won our praises during NY Cider Week and now the West Coast has caught the ginger bug. The light candied ginger character of Deliverance Ginger, from Portland's Reverend Nat's Hard Cider conjures notions of a quality ginger ale without all the sugary sweetness. The only sessionable spiced cider we tried, it's best to have more than one bottle of this stuff on hand.

Herbs work surprisingly well.

Winter fare is is often spiced with rosemary, thyme or sage, and infusing a cider with these herbs can give your drink with the same rustic flavors. These unique ciders can be awkward when served at the wrong time, but they can—like rosemary in mac and cheese—also be a revelation.

One to try: Even I was a little skeptical about the spring fir tips used in Finnriver's Forest Fir. But this earthy, woodsy, cider comes together with layers of tartness that complement the uncanny suggestion of Christmas tree. Serve it with washed-rind cheeses and roasted root vegetables.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

All ciders were provided as samples for review consideration.

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