Season’s Greetings! :: Yuletide Cocktails

by Ray Aguilera
Saturday Dec 14, 2013

Ahh, the holidays... it's that time of year when there's an endless stream of parties, events, and yes, family. All that activity means the holidays are also a good time for some tippling.

While beer or whiskey and ginger is our usual go-to, we wanted something a little more festive. We checked in with some of our favorite bars to see what they have in their bag of tricks for this holiday season. What we found were trends toward darker spirits, and a tendency toward seasonal flavors.

I sat down with Mike Pell, a bartender over at The Pilsner Inn, which has been slinging drinks to the Castro locals and visitors alike since 1980. Mike's been around for the last 12 of those years, so he's seen it all, and when I asked him about his favorite holiday drinks, he had plenty to say.

"I go for the classics," said Mike "but I like to throw a little bit of a twist in there." Mike then showed me the Pilsner's Hot Tommy (named after a Pilsner stalwart), a variation on the classic Hot Toddy that was perfect for a rainy San Francisco day. Mike uses rye whiskey to add a bit of bite to the wintertime classic.

Hot Tommy from The Pilsner Inn
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 cloves
1 Tbs honey
6 oz hot water
1.5 ounces Bulleit Rye whiskey
Lemon peel

Place cinnamon stick and cloves to a mug. Add water and honey. Let steep for a few minutes, then add bourbon. Lightly twist the lemon peel to release oil, and add to mug.

With 30 rotating taps, the recently-remodeled Pilsner is known for being a great beer bar, and if you like your holiday cheer served cold and carbonated, Mike had some great options for that, too. One of his current favorites is Stupid Stout from Coronado Brewing Co. The rich, malty brew definitely has a wintery, Christmas-y, chocolate-y vibe, and at ten percent alcohol, it is a rather stout drink indeed. Don't say we didn't warn you, if you end up imbibing in just a bit too much Christmas cheer. And if you're interested in entertaining at home, Stupid Stout can be found in bottles.

Blackbird has quickly made a name for itself with its laid-back speakeasy vibe, and the innovative, ever-changing seasonal cocktail menu. I spoke with proprietor Shawn Vergara about what makes a great holiday drink.

"A great holiday cocktail should warm the soul or put a sparkle in your eye. It's all about the right drink to fit the occasion."

Shawn mentioned sherry as a popular ingredient during this time of year, as well as a few exotic ingredients that Blackbird has been experimenting with lately, including genever (a gin-like liquor popular in The Netherlands) and Branca Menta, a mintier kissing-cousin to San Francisco's beloved Fernet Branca.

"Our bar manager Matt Grippo has concocted quite a few interesting, but approachable cocktails. One of the standouts would be the Fernet Alexander which is a riff on the classic Brandy Alexander. The warming notes work really well when the right balance is found."

Vergera also mentioned the Winter's Cup as being a top seller in the bar right now, and graciously offered to share both recipes.

I asked Shawn if he had any tips for merry-makers looking to host a holiday party, and he suggested keeping things simple.

"Make a punch and have backup batches ready to go if needed. Now enjoy the party!"

Winter Cup from Blackbird
1.5 oz Lairds Bonded apple brandy
.75 oz simple syrup
.75 oz fresh lemon juice
.50 oz egg whites
Cardamom bitters and spice tincture
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice, and garnish with fresh nutmeg.
The Fernet Alexander from Blackbird
1.5 oz Fernet Branca Menta
1 oz heavy cream
.5 oz white creme de cacao
Shake ingredients with ice, and strained into a coupe glass. Garnish with nutmeg.
Kate Bolton, bar manager and partner at the Lower Haight's Maven, agrees that the holidays bring to mind drinks that warm the soul. She likes working with comforting flavors like honey, maple, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Kate said, "I'm using chestnuts, hazelnuts, sage, pomegranate, a lot of ginger, although ginger's not all that exotic, I suppose."

The chestnuts are put to good use in the Fireside Cocktail. With a combination of rye whiskey, lemon, egg white, and a "Fireside syrup" of chestnuts, apple, cinnamon, clove, and star anise, it's good enough to make you hope for cold weather conducive to hanging out in Maven's upstairs fireplace lounge.

Another wintery favorite is the Liar's Bench, which Kate offered to share with us. Brandy, pomegranate, and sage give the drink some seasonal flair.

When it comes to entertaining, Kate also recommends keeping things simple and crowd-friendly. But the real question this time of year is naughty or nice?
"A little of both I think," Kate said. "It keeps people guessing."

The Liar's Bench from Maven
1.5 oz tempranillo (or other dry wine)
1 oz apple brandy
.5 oz grenadine (real grenadine from pomegranates, not the scary fluorescent pink stuff)
3 sage leaves
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients well with ice and pour over a large ice cube. Garnish with a sage leaf.

Experiment on your own at home with these recipes, but try them out at the bars first, and invite friends on your wish list.

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