Joy to the world: The history of the Christmas cocktail

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Christopher Hirst celebrates the Christmas cocktail (flames and all) – and asks three of the nation's top bartenders for their favourite festive sharpeners.

Perhaps because cocktail drinkers enjoy celebrations on a frequent, sometimes daily basis, there is a distinct paucity of dedicated Christmas cocktails. There happens to be a Cool Yule Martini (a minty affair, not recommended), but few others; in drink encyclopaedias, you will look in vain for concoctions called the Yule Fool or Sooty Santa.

The British tend to stick to the tried-and-tested for a festive bracer. In Elizabeth David's Christmas, the great food writer proposes only a marginal deviation from her normal practice: "For Christmas entertaining, a White Lady cocktail (two parts gin, one part Cointreau, one part lemon juice, shake with ice and strain) makes a pleasant change from the classic Martini."

Described in a US cocktail guide as "very WASPy indeed: icy and sour", the astringent White Lady makes a good pre-feast sharpener, far superior to the mundane Buck's Fizz (equal parts of champagne or sparkling wine and orange juice), which gained an inexplicable traction as a Christmas Day refresher a few years ago. Like Black Velvet, it is the ruination of two good drinks. OJ works well, however, in a White Lady variation called French Sherbet (equal parts gin, Cointreau, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and orange juice, shake with ice and strain), which, as the name suggests, produces a delicious tingle on the palate. It is also dangerously more-ish.

There may be a lack of Christmas cocktails, but a few contain ingredients associated with Christmas. The cranberry, a far more welcome arrival than most gastronomic imports from America, delivers the acidity vital to fruit cocktails and has the right festive colour. The Cosmopolitan (two parts each of citrus vodka and Cointreau, three parts of cranberry juice, half-part of fresh lime juice, shake with ice and strain) would be the perfect Christmas cocktail if only it were called the Red Rudolf. Unfortunately, this fine drink is ineluctably associated with the half-forgotten TV series Sex and the City.

A cocktail can be venerable and still hot – Ernest Hemingway was a devotee of the highly fashionable Mojito – but it can't be passé. Cranberry addicts may also like the Cape Codder, named after the Massachusetts home of the indigenous berry: two parts vodka to three of cranberry juice with a squeeze of lime, mix in glass with ice.

A few cocktails incorporate the spiciness that is synonymous with Christmas. If this sounds odd, think of the pinch of pepper James Bond added to his vodka in Moonraker. "It's a trick the Russians taught me," 007 explained to his aghast boss, M. "In Russia, where you get a lot of bath-tub liquor, it's an understood thing to sprinkle a little pepper in your glass. It takes the fusel oil to the bottom, I got to like the taste and now it's a habit."

Cinnamon, the picturesque curl of bark that makes a frequent appearance in American cuisine, crops up k in several cocktails. In particular, it adds a vital finishing touch to the creamy digestivo known as Brandy Alexander (two parts brandy, one part double cream, one part dark crème de cacao, shake with ice and strain). Although nutmeg has hallucinogenic properties when taken in bulk, this is not the reason for the fragrant dusting that completes the Brandy Alexander. The sensual complexity of the spice redeems a drink damned in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Food & Drink in America as "the most notorious 'girl' drink… cloyingly sweet". Speaking as an honorary girl, I rather enjoyed it. There are far worse things to follow a mince pie.

British stinginess concerning ice cubes is one reason why we have no great tradition of Christmas cocktails. Such drinks are served cold, very, and meant to be drunk that way. When asked the best way to drink a cocktail, Harry Craddock, the Savoy's head barman in the Jazz Age, replied, "Quickly, while it's laughing at you." Another reason is our climate. In an era before central heating, hot drinks were preferred at Christmas. Wassail, a punch of spiced, mulled cider, may date back to pagan times, but a glass of toddy, usually made from whisky with hot water and often sugar, was a frequent sight in pubs until the 1950s.

In the US, this unassuming reviver was transformed into the most theatrical of all cocktails in the 1850s by legendary barkeep Jerry Thomas. It involves two metal tankards with handles, a wineglass of Scotch, a wineglass of boiling water, a flame and a cool nerve. The whisky and water are added to one of the tankards and ignited. While blazing, the contents are poured from one tankard held high to another held low. "If well done, this will have the appearance of a continued stream of liquid fire," wrote Thomas, but warned, "It will be necessary to practise for some time with cold water."

In his book Imbibe!, US drinks writer David Wondrich says, "Cask-strength Laphroaig works splendidly", though it is questionable how many would wish to spend £50 on a bottle for "this spectacular bar-room stunt". The Blue Blazer was an electrifying spectacle when I saw it recently in a Soho bar (using ordinary Scotch), but it would have been even more impressive in the days of gaslight. It tasted nice as well. When the fiery juggling ends, a teaspoon of sugar is stirred into the mixture before it is decanted into a glass with a piece of lemon peel.

Mulled wine was the vinous equivalent of the toddy, though it turns down the potency by a few notches. You may recall from Frank Capra's weepie It's a Wonderful Life, the response when the angel Clarence requests a mulled wine in a tough bar: "Now look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint 'atmosphere'. Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?"

Dr Johnson was fond of a version known as Bishop until he turned teetotal, which possibly explains his dismissive definition, "a cant word for a mixture of wine, oranges and sugar". Named after the purple cassocks worn by bishops, it is made with roasted oranges, cloves, sugar and port. k After mixing together, the oranges are squeezed and the mixture gently heated. Dickens not only mentions "a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop" in A Christmas Carol but also gave a supercharged recipe in a letter. His knee-weakening potion includes the zest and juice of three lemons, sugar, "a pint of good old rum and a large wine-glass of good old brandy", which are mixed with a quart of boiling water. In Scandinavia, the hot punch tradition continues with Swedish glögg (the innocuous version sold at Ikea is best avoided) and Danish Øgge.

Americans still enjoy punch at Christmas, but in chilled form with eggs, cream and nutmeg taking the place of fruit and boiling water. That party drink you see being ladled out in American films set around Christmas is likely to be eggnog. Wondrich says the drink was once "mandatory" in the US and it still exerts a retro appeal. Mention eggnog on this side of the Atlantic, however, and you're liable to get the curled lip, "You mean advocaat?" But if you put your prejudices aside, you will discover why America continues to enjoy this seasonal treat. Eggnog is sociable, delicious and sustaining. Oh yes, one more thing, it can also be seriously potent.

At Home on the Range, the newly re-issued 1947 cookbook by the Philadelphian culinary adventurer Elizabeth Gilbert, includes "the famous eggnog" dispensed by one of the city's physicians. "Beat the yolks of six eggs thoroughly with ¾ cup (150g) sugar. Slowly stir in two quarts (2 litres) of rich milk and, just as slowly 1 pint of rye whiskey and 1 tablespoon of rum. Fold in the stiffly beaten whites of six eggs and chill overnight if you wish. Dust with nutmeg before serving." Not surprisingly, this heady brew was lapped up by "numerous friends".

A less challenging recipe from US cocktail king Dale DeGroff, which reduces the milk to 900ml (but adds 450ml of double cream) and the alcohol to 175ml of bourbon and 175ml of golden rum, may be more suitable for modern lily-livers. (Brandy or calvados are also very effective in eggnog.) DeGroff recommends adding 100g of the sugar while beating the yolks and the rest of the sugar while beating the whites. It is best made the day before and allowed to chill. Serve this liquid Americana with appropriate accompaniment: Sinatra, Crosby, Fitzgerald, Bennett…

Finally, we shouldn't forget that the cocktail shaker, a symbol of pleasure if ever there was one, might make the perfect present. For the price of a round or two of cocktails at a posh bar, you can buy the makings for some of the greatest cocktails known to man. Start with a shaker and a bottle of Cointreau (or Grand Marnier for a bit more depth). Add gin and lemon juice and you have the White Lady. Add brandy and lemon juice and you have the Sidecar. Add tequila and fresh lime juice and you have the Margarita. Add citrus vodka and lemon juice and you have the Lemon Drop. A cocktail shaker means that Christmas comes, if not quite every day, at least once a week.


Cocktails mixed by Lee Potter Cavanagh


Salvatore Calabrese

Bartender-owner, Salvatore at Playboy

Starting as a teenager in a bar on the Amalfi coast, Salvatore Calabrese has become one of the UK's leading ambassadors for the cocktail, including stints as head barman at Dukes Hotel and the Lanesborough in London. For the past 18 months, he has run Salvatore at the Playboy Club.

"Christmas is a time when the bar really comes alive," say Calabrese, who adheres to a glass-half-full view of life. "It's not just about being busy and making money, it's about giving a memorable time to anyone who comes to visit me. The sign of a great bartender is to go one step beyond the expectation of the customer."

This year, Calabrese is going one step beyond with seasonal offerings including the Silent Night and Christmas Puddingtini. Made of frozen gin, cognac and white crème de cacoa, the curious name is explained by the inclusion of a miniature Christmas pudding. The drinks pud ("about the size of an olive") is soaked in Sambuca, then set alight and dropped into the Puddingtini before serving. Its creator insists that the cocktail will not catch fire because it is too cold.

To ensure his customers will want to make a return visit over Christmas, Calabrese says we should cure a hangover before it happens. "Why wait for detox? One simple way is to drink as much water as possible after a night out. Keep a bottle at the bedside."

So what cocktail does the Maestro choose to have with his wife Sue on Christmas morning? "None," he replies. "We usually have a glass of amontillado."

Silent Night

Makes 1

1 vanilla pod
40ml Diplomatico rum
15ml port
1 tsp apricot brandy
2 tsp cranberry sauce


Remove the seeds from the vanilla pod and place them with the other ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake sharply to allow the mixture to mix well. Double-strain (pour the contents of the shaker through a tea-strainer) into a port glass.

Shaken, not stirred The Savoy's legendary barman Harry Craddock (in white) demonstrates how to make a cocktail to onlookers including the writers Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, November 1927

Give it a shot Lee Potter Cavanagh adds apricot brandy to the mix in preparing a Silent Night at Mark's Bar in Soho

Nick Strangeway

Cocktail consultant

After working behind a bar to finance his studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Strangeway felt the urge to move from fine art to the art of the cocktail.

Voted World’s Best Mixologist in 2008 at the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, he is currently working as consultant for Hix Restaurants and Absolut Vodka.

“Christmas is the cash cow of the year for bars but there is a downside,” says Strangeway.

“Everyone thinks they’re Oliver Reed for a week. They enter Drinksville though they haven’t done enough training. People start drinking two or three bottles at lunchtime then carry on at night. No wonder they can’t take it. It’s all about pacing.”

Not only do once-a-year topers drink too much, they drink too oddly. “They pile into the bar and begin ritualistic drinking of rather strange concoctions: tequila slammers, blue drinks,

drinks with flames. It has its fun side but there can be unpleasant consequences. The best idea when going out at Christmas is to restrain your sense of bravado. Be discerning in what you drink and where you go.”

Strangeway’s Mulled Spice and All Things Nice stems from his interest in European mixed drinks such as punches and cups that preceded America’s invention of the cocktail. The appearance of such drinks on the menu at Hawksmoor and the early cocktails at Hix Soho is due to Strangeway.

Despite his ambivalent feelings about Christmas, Strangeway is not averse to a small celebration. “If I wake up on Christmas Day with my family, we drink buckets of Bellinis. Make them with a decent prosecco; don’t waste your champagne on it.Don’t waste your time trying to make peach purée but buy it in readymade (you can get it at most supermarkets). It should be one-third purée to two-thirds prosecco.”

Mulled Spice and All Things Nice

Serves 4

100ml Somerset Cider
40ml honey
400ml pressed apple juice
Juice of one lemon
1 tbsp salted butter

For the spice bag

10-12 cm square of muslin
3cm cinnamon stick
1 star anise
4 cloves
2 green cardamoms
2 slices of fresh ginger
2 strips of orange zest
2 strips of lemon zest

To serve

4 slices of orange
16 cloves
Freshly grated nutmeg

Wrap all the ingredients for the spice bag in the muslin and tie with a piece of string. Heat all the punch ingredients in a saucepan, whisking regularly to melt the butter. Bring just to the boil and take off the heat. Remove the spice bag. Pour into metal mugs or tempered glassware. Garnish with a clove-studded wheel of orange and grate a little nutmeg over each drink.

Andrea Montague

Bar manager at Callooh Callay

London's leading female mixologist Andrea Montague does her thing at Callooh Callay in Shoreditch, one of the capital's hottest spots. The name comes from Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" ("Hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms. My beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!") and the joint's absurdist style continues the theme with gusto. Drinks are served in gramophones and the entrance to the secret Jubjub bar is through a wardrobe.

CC's appropriately outré concoctions include Persephone (tequila, Punt e Mes and Mozart black-chocolate liqueur), Mr Moustache's Mustard Remedy (tequila with fresh grapefruit juice, Colman's mustard powder and Angostura) and Flippin' Nuts (whole egg, gin, Briottet Chataigne chestnut liqueur, Grand Marnier and vanilla bitters).

Fortunately, perhaps, Montague's Christmas cocktail is slightly less challenging. "The name is a play on 'PS I love you,'" she explains. "It uses Pedro Ximénez sherry as its main ingredient, which is often abbreviated to PX. I have chosen this ingredient because many people only drink sherry at Christmas." Though admitting that sherry tends to be "an empty, out-of-date bottle at the back of a drinks cabinet", Montague points out that, "It is enjoying a massive revival and is currently on trend."

She has chosen to celebrate her love for the sweet, intense, raisin-like dessert sherry made from Pedro Ximénez grapes with a variation on the mid-19th century refresher known as Silver Fizz (2 parts gin, 1 part lemon juice, half-part sugar syrup, egg white, shake with ice, strain into tall glass and top up with soda water). By substituting the finest sweet sherry and cinnamon syrup with ginger ale for the fizz, Montague has infiltrated a summer drink with the dried fruit and spices of the festive season. The result, she says, "tastes like Christmas in a glass".

PX I Love You

Makes 1

50ml Pedro Ximénez sherry
25ml fresh lemon juice
10ml cinnamon sugar syrup (see below)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
White of 1 egg
60ml ginger ale (to top up)

Shake all the ingredients hard with ice. Strain into a tall glass half-filled with ice cubes and top up with the ginger ale. Finish with grated nutmeg.

For the cinnamon syrup

1 cinnamon stick
1 cup demerara sugar
1 cup water

Bring the water to the boil, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the cinnamon stick and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes. Allow to cool, then strain. Will last for up to two weeks in the fridge

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