Stocking Your Home Bar for the Holidays
Tips for making simple (but showy) drinks this season
I’ve recently fallen into the role of bartender among a group of friends at our weekly(ish) potlucks. Many at the gatherings are chefs, bakers, farmers or crafty picklers—a slightly intimidating crowd to cook for. So when deciding what to contribute for that first night, I fell back on my cocktail skills and whipped up something delicious.
Since then, I’ve brought my love of local food and foraged finds out of the kitchen and behind the bar each week, providing experimental drinks (and entertainment). Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to level up your drink-mixing game.
Oh, and when you get nervous about your bartending competency (Is it strong enough for her? Did that last splash totally screw up a perfectly good drink? Maybe he has something against tonic water), remember: most people will be happy that you’re serving them alcohol. So take a breather—you’re already a hit.
Here are my hard-won tips on how to make your holiday cocktail an unforgettable one this year.
There’s no reason to wait until the day of your gathering—you can do so much to stock your bar ahead of time. Simple syrups stay good for months, and it’s easy to make big batches. I like to mix up a pot of syrup (one part water to one part sugar) and let it simmer while I’m making dinner.
Here are a few of my favorite flavorings to add (per 1 cup of simple syrup):
- 2 to 3 sprigs of savory herbs like rosemary, sage or thyme
- The peel of one grapefruit
- 1 tablespoon of cardamom pods
- A 1-inch knob of sliced turmeric or ginger
- ¼ cup of toasted wild rice
Though it’s tempting (and totally permissible) to buy bottled citrus juice, fresher is always better. Juice a batch of lemons and limes up to two days in advance, and store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.
It’s convenient to have pre-cut lemon and lime wedges; prep them up to three days before use. Cut the citrus in half lengthwise, then make a small slit with the tip of your knife in the very center and cut into wedges. That little slit will ensure that you can secure each garnish on the lip of a glass. Store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
Clear squeeze bottles are handy for storing simple syrups and citrus juice—you can be more precise with your measurements (and avoid sticky countertops). You can buy them for a few bucks online or at restaurant-supply stores.
Put Guests to Work
People love an interactive party drink. You can easily set up a beverage station with all the components for a cocktail and a printed recipe. Three-ingredient shaken drinks work well. Just keep an eye on the ice and let your company have at it. You might even discover that a friend wants to play bartender for the night and serve you a drink.
There’s a lot you can do with the ingredients already in your fridge or cupboard, and it’s fun to see what you can make up. Often, my cocktails go through six or seven revisions in the course of an evening. (I serve each draft and request feedback—never be afraid to ask the audience for feedback!)
My basic rules of thumb: one part sweet, one part sour, and two parts booze generally makes for a solid cocktail. Incorporate salty and bitter notes for more complexity. And don’t limit yourself to the usual ingredients. Beyond bitters, there’s black tea, citrus peel, Campari and a range of amaros. Try using redwine vinegar, overfermented kombucha, sumac, or yogurt for tang. To get your sweet fix, loosen fruit jam (I like to work with raspberry and cherry) with a touch of hot water, or try maple syrup, agave or dissolved honey.
Keep It Simple with Local Spirits
We’ve got great distilleries popping up all over Philly, many of which make interesting and flavorful spirits that are showstoppers all on their own. Here are a couple worth picking up:
Woods Black Birch by Red Brick Distilling
This take on Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer captures all the woodsy flavors of honey, brown sugar and black birch bark in a single-malt whiskey. Add a cube of ice if you must. Get it at the distillery: 2628 Martha St., 267.603.3790, redbrickcraftdistillery.com
Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin
This local distillery’s juniper-forward gin is aged for at least three months in American Oak barrels to impart a deeper, slightly sweet flavor. You might detect a hint of whiskey. This one is worth appreciating by itself. Find it at select state liquor stores, or at the distillery: 25 E. Allen St., 215.671.0346, philadelphiadistilling.com
Remember the Nondrinkers
The holidays are be loaded with drinking occasions, and not everyone wants to partake at every occasion. It’s way more fun to drink a shmancy spritzer than water or soda, which is simple enough to pull together. If you’ve got a smattering of simple syrups, chilled teas, juices, seltzer and tonic water, you can make fun nonalcoholic beverages, too. Or just buy a growler of locally made kombucha.