Christmas is a time to rediscover old traditions, to establish new ones and to raise a few celebratory toasts with friends. Anyone can open a bottle of champagne. (Do it with a sword if you want to add a flash touch.) Everyone will open a bottle of Baileys. However, for the best holiday drinks, it’s time to dust off the cocktail shaker and mix a few yourself.
We took inspiration from a few pages in British history – except for a couple of potential classics that we made up ourselves. Is there a better way to ring in the holidays than with something Dickensian? We think not.
Hot Mulled Sloe Gin
Believe it or not, this is a new drink. Born in the last holiday season, it was inspired by – but is far superior to – mulled wine, since the sloe gin is brimming with bright, plummy notes (and missing the vinegar edge and inevitable wine solids that lodge in the back of the throat with hot wine drinks).
50ml sloe gin
50ml cloudy apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
Orange or clementine slice
● Warm the apple juice, water, spices, and orange slice in a saucepan. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Strain out the spices and fruit, reserving the cinnamon stick and orange slice, and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the sloe gin and allow it to warm up. Pour into a teacup. Garnish with the orange and cinnamon stick.
● To make enough for five people (as everyone seems to want a second serving), use 500ml sloe gin, 500ml apple juice, 500ml water, five cinnamon sticks, 10 cloves and five orange slices.
Gin punch is the quintessentially British festive drink. In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the Cratchit family toasted with “the finest gin punch in all of London”, as crafted by Bob Cratchit himself. However, punch actually arrived in Britain before gin was born.
Discovered by English sailors visiting India during the late 16th century, punch takes its name from the Hindi/Sanskrit for the word “five”. Traditionally made with five ingredients – spirit, citrus, sugar, tea and water – punch easily translated itself into an icon for conviviality when it emigrated to London. Punch houses proliferated and the drink morphed in dozens of directions, evolving into an entire category that is still appreciated today. This particular recipe, though, reaches back to the roots of punch:
50ml chai-infused London dry gin*
25ml fresh lemon juice
25ml simple syrup** or sugar
To serve cold: Combine the ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, tumbler or snifter. Garnish with orange (or clementine or satsuma) and lemon slices, pomegranate seeds and other fruits.
To serve hot: Combine the ingredients in a mug, teacup or Irish-coffee cup. Top with 120ml-150ml boiling hot water. Stir. Garnish as before.
*Infusing chai into gin is quick and easy. For a full bottle, combine three to four chai tea bags with a bottle of gin in a jug for 30-45 minutes. Stir and lift out the tea bags. To make a half-bottle, use a half-bottle of gin and two tea bags.
**Simple syrup is invaluable in making drinks, since sugar does not dissolve easily in distilled spirits or in any iced drink. To make simple syrup, combine equal measures of sugar and water (for example a teacupful of each) in a clean glass, jar or bottle. Seal it and shake. After one or two more shakes during 15 to 20 minutes of waiting, the sugar will completely dissolve and the syrup is ready. Store in the refrigerator and use within 10 days.
Butter in a hot drink may seem foreign to modern palates, but it is a tradition that dates back to at least the Bronze Age, and holds a visceral appeal. If you prepare the spiced butter in advance, it takes far less time to make this drink than it does to build a fire. You can opt for Irish whiskey, dark rum or brandy if you prefer – only American whiskey produces less than stellar results.
50ml blended Scotch whisky
120-150ml boiling hot water
1 tbsp spiced butter*
● Warm a mug or Irish-coffee cup with boiling hot water. Discard the water. Add the whisky, boiling hot water and spiced butter. Stir until the butter melts. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
*To make the spiced butter: combine 250g butter and 250g brown sugar in a mixing bowl with one heaped teaspoon of allspice, one of cinnamon, a small pinch of ground clove and a teaspoon of good vanilla extract. Blend thoroughly with a fork. Press the mixture into a ramekin, or wrap it in cling film and shape into a stick of butter. Refrigerate. This mixture keeps well for two weeks.
Blood Orange Buck’s Fizz
Although Buck’s Fizz has devolved in recent times to a brunch drink of sparkling wine and orange juice, it was born at Buck’s Club in London in the 1920s as a more complex recipe, replete with secret ingredients. Patrick McGarry, the personal bartender of Captain Buckmaster (a founder of the club), was asked to replicate a champagne and peach aperitif by one of the captain’s guests. Blood oranges bring a rich, honeyed citrus character to this classic, which we have further adapted to preserve the club’s secrets.
60ml fresh-squeezed blood orange (Sanguinello)
90ml champagne or other good sparkling wine
Optional: splashes of Cointreau or Cherry Heering and gin
● Store the oranges in the fridge for several hours first, so that the fresh juice is already chilled. Squeeze the oranges, pour the juice into a champagne flute or coupe. Top with champagne. While some might say this is a waste of good champagne, a drink is only as good as the least of its ingredients, and a better sparkling wine will always make a better Buck’s Fizz.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginger is used to raise body temperature, so it is no surprise that it was a major import to Britain in the years before central heating. Yet even now, there are times when a bit of internal warming is called for – and for those times there is Whisky Mac. While most people today assume it was always made with ginger wine, early recipes swayed between that and ginger liqueur. Although ginger liqueur seemed to have all but disappeared a decade ago, there are now a few excellent ones available – such as King’s Ginger from Berry Bros & Rudd, and Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur. Plus, ginger syrup is easy to make at home.
25-50ml ginger liqueur or 25ml fresh ginger syrup*
Candied ginger garnish**
To serve cold: Combine whisky and ginger liqueur or syrup in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger.
To serve on the rocks: fill a rocks glass or tumbler with ice. Add ingredients and stir. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger on a toothpick.
To serve hot: place ingredients in a mug, add 100ml boiling water. Serve with a few pieces of candied ginger on the side.
*Ginger syrup: peel and thinly slice two thumbs-worth of ginger crosswise. Combine with 400g sugar and 400ml water in a pan. Cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally. Allow to cool and strain out the ginger.
**For homemade candied ginger, bury the cooked ginger slices in sugar, making sure there is sugar between each one. Leave to dry for a few days.
Jared Brown is master distiller of Sipsmith Gin
With thanks to Artesian Bar, London