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4 tasty cocktails to try this party season

Lift a glass to the latest thing in the drinks world: Rediscovering the oldest things in the drinks world.

For this party season you can reach back to drinks that are straight out of “Game of Thrones.” Colonial-era fruit shrubs, old English mulled wines, steaming toddies and fall punches are all turning up this year.

With Halloween on a Friday, followed by an extra-long stretch of party-worthy weekends until Thanksgiving, we reached out to several bartending experts for advice on old-style drinks that will be fun to know this season.

Stefan Huebner, the bar manager at Heist Brewery, is definitely a fan of fall punches for parties.

“Punches, I think, are amazing,” he says. “I’m big on punches. The friendship aspect, the social event around it. You can serve yourself, the work’s done beforehand. Once you put it out, you’re done.”

He’s not talking polite church punch, though. Punches are some of the oldest mixed drinks, dating back to long before “cocktail” was a word. Most historians think the name punch came from “paunch,” an Indian word for “five,” because they were traditionally made with five ingredients – spirits, sugar, water, spice and citrus.

The trick, Huebner says, is to keep it in balance. All fruit and no spice is a mistake.

“Everybody goes citrus in the fall. They throw it all in, throw a spirit in it, throw ginger ale on it. That’s 1950s, Betty Crocker punch.”

Another drink that has gotten attention lately has been the return of a very old word: a shrub. Not the bush, the drink. In the colonial era, shrubs were a way to preserve fruit by mixing it with vinegar and sugar.

Kevin Gavagan, who does pop-up cocktail events at restaurants around Charlotte as Haunt Bar, is a fan of shrubs. And while the prime season is summer, you can go wintry with an apple and cranberry version.

“I think that’s a fantastic thing to have around,” Gavagan says. “You can throw some club soda on it and have it not be that disgustingly sweet, cranberry ginger ale you see for sale this time of year.”

A vinegar-based mix in a cocktail (or nonalcoholic soda) does take some getting used to, although it can be very refreshing. The trick is to keep it from being too tart. Common white vinegar is too harsh, but balsamic can be too cloying.

While many recipes call for apple cider vinegar, Gavagan and his wife, Heather, are fans of Philippine cane syrup vinegars, such as Sukang Iloco, found at Asian markets.

“That stuff is awesome,” Gavagan says. “It’s the perfect balance of sweet, rich and tangy.”

Tart drinks can be odd to some people, says cocktail expert Gary Crunkleton at The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill. But offering a shrub along with a more familiar drink can keep parties interesting.

“Oftentimes, holiday drinks are all clove, allspice and nutmeg. If you throw in a curve ball, like a shrub, it can be fun.”

Crunkleton, who is planning to open a location in Charlotte in 2015, likes to do mulled drinks for his own holiday parties. While he sticks with the familiar mulled apple cider, we went a little spicier with a mulled red wine, a favorite hot drink for hundreds of years.

The trick there? Adding a little heat with peppercorns, and adding extra wine at the end so you don’t lose all the alcohol while it’s heating.

Either way, you can’t go wrong at a fall or winter party with a warm drink. Huebner admits that he’s a big fan of the simplest, most traditional hot toddy – black tea, bourbon, honey and lemon.

“If I’m under the weather, that will get me through the day.”

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