This is the season of special occasions.
This is the time for sentimental old films, songs you only listen to once a year, and claymation TV specials that offer a portal to your childhood. It’s a time when the very landscape is transformed – from the snow that blankets the ground to the lights, wreaths, and bright red bows that adorn street lamps and shop windows.
It’s the time of year when we gleefully endure subzero temperatures so we can stroll through a colorfully illuminated city.
If you’ve been watching your waistline all year, this is when you look the other way. This is the month for wearing comically garish sweaters. It’s a time for decorating trees, attending parties, and taking a chance under the mistletoe.
This is the most wonderful time of the year. And while it’s famous for flying reindeer and brown paper packages tied up with string, the holiday season also brings out some of the best cocktails known to man. The winter weather inspires all manner of fortifying beverages, but holiday-themed drinks occupy a special class all to themselves.
A cup of cheer can be very simple – just dust off that rarely used bottle of peppermint schnapps, pour some in a mug of hot cocoa, and you’ll be rockin’ around the Christmas tree in no time at all. It’s also possible to go overboard, and I’ve had holiday cocktails made with unnaturally sweet spirits, dyed with artificial coloring, ornamented with candy canes and chocolates, and served in brightly tinted glasses.
But like a carefully decorated house that you make a point to drive by when the calendar turns to December, the best yuletide drinks are artful, well thought out, and beautifully presented. They call for more effort than spiking some store-bought eggnog with whiskey or rum, but they’re also not overdone to Griswoldian proportions. These libations may reflect the colors of the season, but more importantly, they evoke its essence. They capture the aromas of an all-day baking session, the warmth of an open fire, the coziness of a snowy night. They are an annual indulgence as unique as the season itself.
With that in mind, I asked three of Boston’s top mixologists if they’d be each willing to devise an original cocktail for this year’s Boston BarHopper Christmas Special. The drinks they responded with were festive, imaginative, and fully imbued with the holiday spirit.
Our first stop is in Somerville, where Union Square is tastefully lit up and decked out for the holidays. Not that the extra lighting makes Backbar any easier to find. This hidden bar might be a tad challenging to locate if you don’t know where to look, but for some of the best cocktails in the Boston area, it’s worth a little confusion.
Principal bartender Joe Cammarata has been working at Backbar since it opened two years ago. I met him during my first visit a few months back and was immediately impressed with the way he went about his work. No matter how crowded the bar got – and this small space can get busy – Joe never seemed frazzled, making drinks according to his own unflappable tempo. He always found time to inquire about his customers’ spirit preferences, offer suggestions, and explain the nuances of a recipe – all while consistently mixing up the sort of top-notch drinks that have made Backbar such a renowned destination for cocktail enthusiasts.
I stopped by on a recent Saturday evening, and before Joe unveiled his yuletide concoction, he presented me with a fun Backbar original – a Root Beer Float Milk Punch.
The flavors of root beer and ice cream may seem best suited to summer, but this milk punch, made with rum, amaretto, and citrus falernum, had a creamy texture and notes of vanilla that were right at home on a cold winter’s night. And yet this was only a prelude to the main event.
“When you emailed me,” Joe said, “the first thing I thought of was turning a Mai Tai into an eggnog.”
I was stunned. Mai Tai? Eggnog? These are a few of my favorite things, but the citrusy sweetness of a Mai Tai and the rich, dairy base of eggnog sounded even less compatible than the Snow Miser and Heat Miser. What I didn’t realize, though, is that the drinks have more than just rum in common.
“There are a lot of spices in tiki drinks that remind me of Christmas,” Joe explained, as he began making a cocktail that combined the best of two very different worlds. He started by shaking a whole egg and heavy cream before adding a couple of house-made syrups – orgeat and falernum. Then came the booze – orange liqueur, Clément VSOP rum, and Bacardi 8-year rum.
“It wouldn’t be eggnog without nutmeg,” he said, grating a fresh clove of nutmeg over the creamy concoction. “And it wouldn’t be a Mai Tai without a little bit of lime.”
The Nog Mai Tai – a working title, Joe said at the time – was a unique, masterful mix of ingredients that evoked snowy days and tropical nights in equal measure. The almond flavor of the orgeat syrup, an essential component of a genuine Mai Tai, is exactly the sort of warm nuttiness found in all manner of holiday treats. Likewise, the falernum syrup, common to many tiki drinks, combines the flavors you might find in Christmas cookies and pumpkin pies – cloves, ginger, allspice, and vanilla. The Clément added a touch of coconut and caramel.
This was fantastic – clever, unexpected, and representative of the innovative spirit that gives Backbar its impeccable reputation. With notes of molasses and vanilla, balanced by hints of lime and coconut, this full-flavored cocktail conjured the odd image of sipping a cold-weather classic in the land where palm trees sway.
For our second drink we head into downtown Boston, where Boston Common and the Public Garden both sparkle with holiday splendor. The huge Christmas tree, a gift from our friends in Nova Scotia, is celebrated with an annual lighting ceremony that officially ushers in the holiday season.
An illuminated footbridge offers a majestic path through the Public Garden.
Trees all throughout the Common are adorned with festive lights. If you don’t mind the cold, strap on some skates and take a whirl on the Frog Pond.
But when Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose, there’s no better place to warm up than at nearby Stoddard’s.
With an excellent beer selection, a universally lauded Moscow Mule, and an impressive list of old-school craft cocktails, it’s no wonder Stoddard’s is one of Boston’s most popular drinking establishments. It draws a strong after-work crowd that’s never in a hurry to leave, and if you score a seat at the bar before 7 p.m., consider yourself lucky. But no matter how busy or noisy Stoddard’s gets, you’ll probably hear the voice of Jamie Walsh above the din.
As Stoddard’s’ drink coordinator and bar manager, “Walshie” usually looks pretty busy, bouncing between the main bar and a second one downstairs. But he still finds time to mix up a few drinks while talking and laughing with customers.
My first meeting with Jamie was a memorable one. I was at Stoddard’s on a rare quiet evening, working on a piece about the bar. Jamie introduced himself and offered me a sample of Founders Breakfast Stout, an imperial stout that he characterized as “a mouthful of awesomeness.” He immediately struck me as a good-natured fellow whose knowledge of his craft was exceeded only by his enthusiasm.
For the BBH Christmas Special, Jamie offered Stoddard’s’ Downtown Flip. “It’s our play on an eggnog,” he told me. This was a more traditional eggnog than the one I had at Backbar – no lime zest or falernum here – but it was no less inventive and complex. Jamie adds a whole egg, Old Monk 7-year rum, Drambuie, a house-made cinnamon syrup, and Aztec chocolate bitters to a shaker. “This is called a ‘dry’ shake and will help incorporate all the ingredients,” he explained. “It also helps make a more frothy drink.” After that he adds ice, shakes it again, and strains it into a coupe glass.
With a thick consistency akin to that of a milk shake, and tiny shards of ice that added texture and a deep chill, this exquisite drink paid tribute to the holiday season’s quintessential beverage while giving it a few creative, modern twists. The flavor from the chocolate bitters was subtle but unmistakable, while the cinnamon syrup blended with the honey and spices of the Drambuie to create a beverage worthy of being sipped in front of a roaring fire.
When I asked Walshie if he had anything else of the seasonal variety, he responded with a drink called Paradise and Purgatory. This variation of a Manhattan combined rye whiskey, Benedictine, green chartreuse, absinthe, and three dashes of Fernet Branca.
With all those bitter ingredients, I was expecting the cocktail equivalent of coal in my stocking. But I was surprised by the complex, herbal base, and none of individual components were overly assertive. The Paradise and Purgatory isn’t necessarily a holiday drink, but it will surely surely reinvigorate you after hours of walking in a winter wonderland.
Our final stop is in Central Square. Gritty, Bohemian, and alternative as it may be, this Cambridge neighborhood still dons its gay apparel in December.
Now if you’re a regular reader of mine, you could be forgiven for wondering whether I’m secretly on Moksa’s payroll. True, this Pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar has featured prominently in my 2013 posts, from bartender battles to evenings spent watching the Three Amigos. But Moksa regularly hosts fun, creative events; and when Noon Summers’ cocktails are at the center of them, I find it hard to stay away.
Noon is the beverage coordinator at Moksa and a brilliant mixologist. She’s had her work featured in Imbibe magazine, has designed cocktails for numerous events around the city, and makes a mean Manischewitz punch.
For this project, Noon came up with a fresh, highly original cocktail called a Holiday Collins. Made entirely with local ingredients, it’s versatile enough to accompany any holiday dinner.
“Collins” might make you think of gin, but the base liquor in Noon’s cocktail is Bully Boy whiskey.
In place of soda water, she uses Lambise – a Champagne-like “cocktail beer” produced in Belgium and currently sold only in Boston.
To that she adds lemon juice and a special house cordial made from herbs given to her by the guys from the Bully Boy, who grew them right on their own farm. “I call it a farmhouse cordial,” she told me. “It works well with the lambic, which is known as a farmhouse beer.”
Finally, this beauty was ornamented with a sprig of sage (also from the Bully Boy farm), an orange twist, and a playfully festive straw.
Strong, complex, but mellow overall, this was an easy-drinking cocktail designed to complement a winter feast. “It’s food-friendly,” Noon explained. “There’s so much food on your table at the holidays; what goes with it all?” She’s right; think of all the strong flavors competing for your attention on Christmas Day – roasted turkey, ham, cranberries, figgy pudding. “You need an aromatic cocktail, something easy to drink.”
Potent but smooth, and not overpowering, the Holiday Collins was a pleasure to drink. As soon as I lifted the glass, I was met with the unmistakable scent of sage. The Lambise provided effervescence and a subtle tartness. But the farmhouse cordial, a blend of sage, thyme, rosemary, and two types of basil, was the most dramatic component. “You find all these herbs on your table,” Noon noted, “and this drink goes with all of them.”
For me, the flavor brought back one of my most visceral holiday memories: stepping into my aunt and uncle’s house on Christmas Day and being greeted with the savory aromas of fresh herbs and spices wafting toward me from the kitchen.
Before I left, Noon’s bar manager, Tyler, offered me one more surprise – a sip of candy-cane-infused rum. Colorful and sweet, it tasted exactly like a liquid, adults-only candy cane.
Since I’m pretty certain they made this by soaking candy canes in a bottle of Bacardi, it was an ironic follow-up to the artistry of Joe’s Nog Mai Tai, Jamie’s Downtown Flip, and Noon’s own Holiday Collins.
“We were just having fun there,” Noon confessed, a little sheepishly.
But its sweetness and simplicity evoked the holiday season in a different and no less poignant way. Our ability to appreciate the depth and complexity of a well-crafted cocktail is a product of the same maturity and sense of awareness that inevitably diminishes the mystery and majesty of the holiday season.
Now we know how the presents got under the tree and how much they cost. We understand that glowing lights and cheerful songs can make some people feel terribly lonely.
We realize that spending the holiday with our loved ones is a blessing, and yet our hearts note the absence of those who are missing from our celebration. That’s all on top of crowded malls, complicated logistics, and family politics.
We are far removed from the days when our year-end responsibilities included drafting a letter to Santa and trying to evade the naughty list. But sometimes all it takes is the flavor of a candy cane – whether it’s wrapped in plastic or soaking in rum – to bring back the thrill of running downstairs on Christmas morning. And if that renews your ability to believe in magic, even for a moment, then this will always be the most wonderful time of the year.
The holiday season is hurtling toward its epic conclusion, but there’s still plenty of time for a cup of cheer. Check out these fine establishments when you need a break from last-minute shopping or are just looking to celebrate the season:
Backbar: 7 Sanborn Court, Union Square, Somerville
Stoddard’s: 48 Temple Place, Boston
Moksa: 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square, Cambridge
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