Cabinet Meeting: Christmas drinks tips and tricks

Christmas cocktail advice, alternatives to mulled wine, and the best way to stock a drinks cabinet – here are our top tips for your festive drinks

Feature by Peter Simpson | 29 Nov 2022
  • Christmas Cocktails

Christmas is a time for entertaining, for relaxing, for meeting up and being merry. Yes, we're talking about drinking! Much like Christmas dinner, Christmas drinks and cocktails can be a source of stress, waste, and endless recipe discussion that doesn't actually lead anywhere. Fortunately, we've spoken to a trio of drinks experts to get some tips on stocking up your drinks shelves and putting together crowd-pleasing cocktails at home without shelling out your entire festive budget.

When putting together a Christmas drinks cabinet, what should you have in mind?

Andy Dunton, The Cocktail Mafia, Edinburgh: When I'm thinking about festive drinks my mind immediately goes to eggnog-type drinks or an old fashioned. Me and my dad always get each other a bottle of whisky for Christmas so I associate that quite strongly with the festive season as well.

The last few years I have also made espresso martinis for my family at lunch time, so a bottle of Kahlua is definitely on the shopping list, along with some bubbles (goes great with orange juice for a Mimosa in the morning!)

Mark Lambert, The Raging Bull, Edinburgh: I always find darker spirits more complementary to Christmas flavours, but gin can also pair very well with your clover, cinnamon and nutty ingredients. If you want to really cut down on waste, you want to avoid juice or citrus fruit which have an expiry date. Pre-batching Negronis is always a good idea as it is all alcohol that can be kept in the fridge. You can also add Christmas flavours like cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Secret Garden Distillery does a Christmas gin which has all of these flavours complementing the juniper and would work perfectly with sweet vermouth and Campari.

Elsie Cinnamond, Holyrood DistilleryA drinks cabinet can be broken down into base spirits, liqueurs & fortified wines and bitters. Base spirits are gin, rum, tequila, whisky, vodka and brandy. If you don't want to buy all of these then just pick your favourite spirits – if you like Margaritas, you need tequila! I usually go with rum, gin and whisky as they form the base of hundreds of cocktails.

Liqueurs & fortified wines are the spirits that add other flavours and often sweetness to your cocktails. It's a huge category so it can be overwhelming. If you like martinis, then dry vermouth is essential but it needs to be kept refrigerated once opened so if you're not going to get through it, it might not be worth the expense. A good liqueur to have is a triple sec; the orange liqueur is called for in lots of cocktails like Sidecars and Margaritas. A fruity liqueur like creme de mure or creme de cassis can be used with some sparkling wine to create a Christmas Day fizz.

To cut down on waste, pick cocktails that share ingredients and this will limit what you need to buy. For example, if you have gin, sweet vermouth, creme de mure or cassis, campari, lemon juice and prosecco this can make Negroni, Negroni Sbagliato, Bramble, Kir Royale, Americano, Campari Spritz, and Silver Fizz.

Can you recommend a cocktail recipe that’s easy to make while entertaining a big group?

EC: Make a punch guests can serve themselves or batch a cocktail recipe that you can keep in the fridge or freezer. Punch is maybe the oldest cocktail and so versatile – you can use whatever you have to hand and get creative. The proportions of punch are easy once you know the rhyme, "one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak".

Sour is lime or lemon juice. Sweet is sugar. Strong is your spirit – I like a rum punch. Weak can be water, lemonade, fruit juice, cold tea etc. On top of this you can add any spices (cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg etc) and fruit you like (fruits in season include clementine, plums, pears, apples) or a bag of frozen berries works well. Serve in a large bowl and have guests ladle into their own cups. Cocktails that are made of just alcohol (Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Negronis etc) can be batched in bigger quantities and chilled in the fridge or freezer, then poured as guests arrive. No faffing with making drinks to order.

ML: Christmas Negroni – batch 200ml Secret Garden Christmas Gin, 200ml of your preferred Sweet Vermouth (Martini Rosso works well) and 200ml Campari (if you prefer it slightly less bitter, use Aperol) in a big jug and chill with ice. Strain into a 70cl glass bottle that can be stored in the fridge.

Maple Syrup Old Fashioned is another easy drink that can be kept in the fridge. I would make this with 50ml Bourbon, 10ml Maple Syrup, 1 dash of Angostura bitters and 1 dash of Orange Bitters. Multiply these measurements up to the volume you desire.

AD: For my perfect Old Fashioned, I like a bourbon – something like Makers Mark is good quality for the price as well as readily available. You'll also need some brown sugar syrup which is super easy to make (hence why it's sometimes called simple syrup!). I go for around 2 parts sugar to 1 part water; heat it up until all the sugar dissolves. The last thing you will need is a bottle of Angostura bitters. You won't use much for this drink but it is very versatile and I like it in some other Christmas cocktails as it has a lot of warming spice notes.

For building the Old Fashioned, mix 50ml of bourbon, 10-15ml of sugar syrup and 2-3 dashes of bitters together and chill by stirring with ice. If you want to batch this ahead of time, you can scale up the measurements, add it to a sealable bottle and then chill in the freezer so it's ready to pour when your guests want it!

An Old Fashioned being poured into a short glass.

What would be your top tips for pairing drinks with food, particularly when it comes to festive food?

EC: I'm no expert but I like contrast. If a dish is particularly rich I like a drink that is more acidic that can cut through the richness. If a dish is overly sweet, a bitter drink, like a hoppy beer, can offset this. Treat your drink like an extension of the dish. It's about balancing the flavours, not overpowering each other.

ML: I'd always recommend pairing wine with food and mulled wine is always a winner at Christmas. Cook a bottle of your chosen red wine, a cinnamon stick, one star anise, the zest of a lemon and four tablespoons of sugar on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for an hour.

AD: I'm no expert at pairing drinks with food but you can't go wrong with a little mix of white, red and bubbles. You can get a lot of value out of supermarket wines but local wine shops are the best. Speak to the staff there and they will be able to recommend what will pair well with your Christmas food!

Andy Dunton of The Cocktail Mafia.

If you’re hosting folk over Christmas, what would you recommend for the endless bottles of wine you’re going to receive apart from mulling it?

ML: Simply save them for the future in a cool, dark, dry store. Wines don't need to be drunk immediately and are often best drunk years later. Alternatively, you could make a New York Sour and use the wine to top the drink.

AD: Mulled wine is definitely a great shout, but as we all know your wine isn't going to go off any time soon so don't feel like you need to finish it all at once, your head will thank you the next morning!

EC: You can do lots with wine other than mull it. You can make wine vinegar and use it for marinades, salad dressings and shrubs for cocktails. You can also use it for sangria or New York sours!

We make white sangria at the distillery using our Strong Waters spirit. Toss half a sliced lemon, half a sliced lime and half a sliced orange in a large pitcher with some mint leaves and two to three tablespoons of sugar. Stir until it starts to macerate, then add 100ml of spirit and a bottle of white wine. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, add ice, and top up with lemonade. This recipe is good because you can use whatever fruit you have to hand. It works with berries, grapes, apples, and exotic fruits too.

Hot Wine Lemonade is also good for using wine. It's an old recipe that lies somewhere between a Hot Toddy and Mulled Wine. Pour 60ml red wine, 45ml lemon juice and 25ml sugar syrup or honey into a mug. Top with boiling water, and garnish with a lemon wheel studded with cloves.