With Christmas less than two weeks away, we’re deep into the holiday season. And while the spirited season deserves the most festive of cocktails, striking the right balance between indulgent holiday fare and of the season libations can be tricky.
I turned to Westin Charlotte cocktail consultant and visiting New York City mixologist Jason Cousins for some tips and advice on what makes a special holiday cocktail and how to create the right food and cocktail pairings. He also shared a few recipes for some quintessential holiday favorites.
Cousins was in the QC recently creating several seasonal cocktails for a special whisky dinner hosted by the Westin’s JP Charlotte restaurant. The drinks featured JP Charlotte Woodford Reserve Whisky – a special blend crafted by the Kentucky distillery unique to a single barrel – from which all 160 bottles were acquired by the restaurant.
Cousins has been working with the bar staff at the Westin for the past year upping their cocktail game to focus on freshly squeezed juices, all natural in-house made syrups, premium spirits and seasonal cocktail menus taking advantage of locally grown herbs, fruit and honey.
‘Keep it simple’
“The first rule of holiday cocktails is: ‘Keep it simple,’” says Cousins. “You want to keep your menu in mind and look for your cocktails to compliment the flavors of your food. Seasonal holiday flavors to consider are maple syrup, roasted pear, cinnamon, cloves, cranberries, and apples.”
Now onto the drinks.
The Autumn Smash, featured at JP, is a great stand alone cocktail or good pairing for appetizers/hors d’ouvres. The drink mixes JP Woodford Reserve, honey, lemon, quince and apple preserves and green apple peel over ice.
“When creating pairings, start with lighter cocktails and progress to heavier drinks throughout the meal – higher alcohol content aids in digestion,” said Cousins. “You’re looking to match textures as well as tastes.”
Prefer vodka or gin based holiday drinks? Thanksgiving may be over but you and your guests can still enjoy the Cranberry Cobbler. Mix two parts vodka or gin, one part lemon juice, one part simple syrup, one tablespoon of cranberry sauce and a splash of orange juice – shake and serve over ice. A similarly-styled Rum Cobbler combines rum, lime juice, simple syrup, pomegranate liqueur, and muddled berries.
“Hot drinks are great holiday starters,” said Cousins, citing spiced cider as one of his favorite seasonal go-to’s. “Spike an orange with whole cloves and a cinnamon stick, add to a gallon of apple cider, a pint of dark rum, and brown sugar to taste. Heat in a crock-pot and let guests serve themselves.”
Maple Pear Crisp and the Champagne Cocktail
Sparklers are perhaps the most festive of holiday drinks. Cousins puts an autumnal twist on these with his Maple Pear Crisp. Served in a flute, the drink mixes JP Woodford reserve, roasted pears (sautéed in brown sugar and honey, then muddled), maple syrup, lemon and topped with sparkling wine.
“The classic New Year’s drink is the Champagne Cocktail,” Cousins said. “Simply take a sugar cube, add a few drops of bitters – I prefer Angostura — place in a champagne glass and top with your favorite bubbly.”
And, of course, homemade eggnog
For Christmas? Cousins shares his homemade eggnog recipe below:
– 1 cup aged rum
– 1/2 cup brandy
– 1 quart whole milk
– 1 pint whipping cream
– 3/4 cup superfine sugar
– 6 eggs (separated)
(1) Beat together egg yolks and 1/2 cup of superfine sugar, then stir in milk, cream, and liquor.
(2) Separately, beat egg whites with the remaining sugar until the whites form peaks. Fold in the whites with the egg yolks and liquor.
(3) Ladle the ‘nog into mugs and garnish with grated nutmeg and cinnamon.
Photos: Michael J. Solender; Westin Charlotte.