If you’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, then this isn’t your year. It may not even feel like the holiday season, what with the unusually temperate weather we’ve been having in Boston. But it still looks like the most wonderful time of the year. Snow or no, the entire city is a kaleidoscopic panorama of silver bells, colored lights, and big red bows.
And hopefully it still feels special. After all, it’s the time of year for making exceptions. Tolerating the same familiar songs over and over again. Spending more money than you should, just to see the joy on someone’s face when they unwrap a gift. Wearing your roomiest pants in anticipation of a big meal.
Maybe it’s a time for taking chances, too. Like reaching out to people you’ve lost touch with, even if it’s just with a greeting card. Or making a well-timed stroll under the mistletoe. Or telling someone you love them, because maybe you haven’t said it in a while. Or at all.
And of course, it’s the very best time for indulging in a cup of cheer!
The holiday season brings out some of the best cocktails of the year. Daiquiris and Old Fashioneds are good in all sorts of weather. But Christmas time, unlike any other time of the year, has certain drinks reserved for it. I mean, nobody drinks eggnog in July (except maybe Santa).
The holidays call for thick, rich libations. It’s the month for warm drinks, sweet drinks, and cocktails that echo the hearty flavors of the season.
So for the Fourth Annual Boston BarHopper Christmas special, I asked four area bartenders if they’d each be willing to create a cocktail that captured the essence of this magical season.
All four obliged, and they responded with an inventive complement of holiday drinks, from re-imagined classics to new and wildly original concoctions.
In the spirit of overdoing things around the holidays, this is a bit of an oversized post, so I hope you’ll bear with me.
Amber Wirth, Ward 8
Our Yuletide odyssey begins in one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods. The North End is decked out in its holiday finery, with big wreaths hanging in pastry shop windows, lampposts wrapped in red and green, and Christmas lights twinkling up and down Hanover Street.
On the outskirts of this traditional Italian enclave is Ward 8, one of the few establishments in the area specializing in cocktails instead of red sauce. I’ve been going to this bar since shortly after it opened and have had the pleasure of watching its cocktail program evolve.
Bar manager Mike Wyatt was phasing in a seasonal drink menu when I stopped in recently, and one of the new selections is a barrel-aged Emerald. The Emerald is an Irish take on the Manhattan, and Ward 8’s is made with Teeling’s Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. A month or so of barrel aging gives it an oaky, almost smoky character.
Not a bad choice for that time of year when the days get shorter and Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose.
But if you’re seeking an antidote to the food coma that inevitably follows a holiday meal, then bartender Amber Wirth’s got you covered. “In Italy, a shot of Amaro after dinner is termed a Caffè Corretto, as in ‘correcting’ the stomach after a long meal,” she explains.
That was the inspiration for her Corretto cocktail, a relatively low-proof drink that will complement the flavors of the season and revive you when the turkey meat sweats kick in.
Amber’s preferred amaro is made by Bortolo Nardini, and she says it “exhibits a lot of characteristics of other amari (bitter orange, anise), but also has a dominant and very rich, dark chocolate flavor with a hint of peppermint.”
She combines that with Amontillado, a nutty, medium-dry sherry that’s not too heavy.
Rounding things out are fresh lemon juice, which provides a little acidity, and cinnamon syrup, which contributes the requisite holiday cheer.
The result is a smooth, slow-sipping cocktail with notes of mint, chocolate, and spices. It has a cloudy complexion when poured but soon takes on a seasonably appropriate reddish hue.
Amber describes her concoction as “rich, nutty, tart, and ever so slightly bitter,” and because amaro and sherry are more viscous than other liquors, “the resulting drink is creamy, full, and round.”
This exceptional cocktail will be part of Ward 8’s winter drink menu going forward. But if you need something to balance out your figgy pudding and want to try your hand at making the Corretto, Amber has kindly provided her recipe:
- 1½ Ounces Nardini Amaro
- ¾ Ounce Medium-Dry Amontillado Sherry
- ½ Ounce Fresh Lemon Juice
- ¼ Ounce Cinnamon Syrup
Shake all ingredients and fine-strain into a small cocktail coupe, or fancy holiday glass of choice. No garnish.
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Mike Boughton, Tap Trailhouse
I know it’s a haven for tourists and holds only narrow appeal for locals, but Faneuil Hall occupies a soft spot in my heart – particularly when the calendar turns to December.
You won’t catch me at Cheers or anything like that, but I’m a sucker for the corridor of illuminated trees, the booming holiday soundtrack, and the sky-high Christmas tree that stands at one end. Not to mention an occasional appearance by certain offbeat performers.
Across the street from that holiday bacchanal is the Tap Trailhouse. Formerly known just as the Tap, several years ago the bar reinvented itself, embracing its Freedom Trail address and adopting what you might call a colonial swagger.
The menu re-imagines classic New England fare, the draft beer options are all made by regional brewers, and the cocktail program, led by Mike Boughton, digs through the withered pages of antique recipe books to create contemporary versions of centuries-old libations.
Given the Tap Trailhouse’s proximity to one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, it’s tempting to dismiss the bar’s colonial theme as nothing more than a gimmick designed to attract sightseers.
But last month I attended a class that Mike taught about how to make some of these old-fashioned drinks, and it was clear that he had a true passion for the cocktails, their colorful history, and how best to reinterpret them with modern ingredients.
And so it came as no surprise that when I asked him to contribute a drink for this story, he offered one that was popular in the 19th century – though its roots date back as far as the Middle Ages.
Mike describes the “posset” as a very old British drink that was often consumed at celebratory events. During the holidays, people would go around drinking posset, singing carols, that sort of thing. It’s a creamy drink, similar to eggnog, that was traditionally made with ale or sherry as its base.
Mike’s base is Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine that itself has an interesting story. He explains that when shipping wine from the island of Madeira to the New World, the Portuguese would add booze to prevent spoilage. They stored the fortified wine in oak barrels for the journey across the Atlantic, and by the time they got to America, the resulting wine sweet and nutty.
This became known as the Madeira style of wine.
For his Madeira Posset, Mike mulls Madeira with orange zest, allspice, cinnamon, clove, and curaçao. He tops that with a mixture of milk cream, eggs, and sugar. This makes for a thick, rich, eggnog-like cocktail with deep, nutty flavors from the Madeira and sweetness from the cream and sugar.
The mulled wine is hot, so it’s a drink that’ll warm you up, and the blend of spices is perfect for the holidays. Consider pouring some in a travel mug for a night of belting out Christmas carols in your neighborhood. Better yet, stop by the Tap Trailhouse, which will feature the Madeira Posset on its seasonal menu.
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Tainah Soares, Trina’s Starlite Lounge
From Boston we head to Somerville, where Trina’s Starlite Lounge is positively crackling with the Christmas spirit.
The stockings are hung by the logo with care, the backbar is strewn with lights, and that recognizable, old-school refrigerator offers thoughtful holiday messages in magnetic letters.
Even if you’ve never been to Trina’s, you might recognize bartender Tainah Soares. Earlier this year, Thrillist included her in a blog post titled “10 Female Bartenders You Need to Know in Boston.” The Improper Bostonian went further, naming her one of Boston’s best bartenders in November.
One of Tainah’s most notable contributions to Trina’s beverage program has been the StarPop – a rotating carbonated cocktail. I don’t get to Trina’s as often as I’d like, but whenever I do, I’m always excited to find out what effervescent mixture Tainah’s managed to capture in a bottle. Her holiday offering may be her most unusual combination yet.
Called the Arctic Puffin – an allusion to the Will Ferrell holiday epic “Elf” – the central ingredient here is a cherry-mint shrub that Tainah created as a means to experiment with a festive cocktail. “I wanted to create a flavor profile that reminded people of winter through pepper and mint flavors,” she says.
She combines the shrub with Privateer Silver rum, the spicy Ancho Reyes, grapefruit juice, and a dash of Pernod.
“Isn’t it weird?” she asks as I take my first sip. That is exactly the word I would use, in fact. I can’t recall a more unconventional combination of ingredients, honestly. But after I spent a few minutes contemplating the flavor profile – sour, tart, sweet, fruity, peppery, and spicy – I began to really enjoy the drink. I’d call it refreshing, but with an edge.
And the cherry/mint combo does give it a true seasonal character, as does the cocktail’s beautiful shade of red and its mint garnish.
While I have little advice to offer when it comes to making a cherry-mint shrub, much less carbonating this quirky cocktail, here’s Tainah’s recipe:
- 1½ Ounces Privateer Silver Rum
- 1 Ounce Cherry-Mint Shrub
- ½ Ounce Ancho Reyes
- ½ Ounce Grapefruit Juice
- Dash Pernod
The Arctic Puffin will be Trina’s final carbonated cocktail of the season (StarPops will be back in the spring). But with any luck, the Madaket Road will be available throughout the winter. In an effort to create a drink that “tastes like winter, but still goes down easy and refreshing,”
Tainah combines St. George Terroir gin, vanilla bean syrup, lemon juice, Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, and wild mountain sage bitters for the cocktail equivalent of a sleigh ride through a snowy forest.
St. George Terroir is an exceptional gin – very woodsy, with vibrant herbal notes and botanicals. But what truly makes this drink unique is the more obscure Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, which Tainah describes it as “Christmas in a bottle.”
It’s a clear brandy infused with springtime Douglas fir buds from Oregon. Potent and aromatic, this pale green liqueur could easily overpower a cocktail.
But a small measure of it serves to complement the gin, and the vanilla bean syrup gives the drink a creamy texture. Complex but smooth, the cocktail does exactly what its maker intended – capture the essence of the season in an eminently drinkable form.
- 1½ Ounces St. George Terroir Gin
- ¾ Ounce Sage-Vanilla Bean Syrup
- ½ Ounce Lemon Juice
- ¼ Ounce Douglas Fir Eau de Vie
- Dash of Dram Wild Mountain Sage Bitters
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Lonnie Newburn, GrandTen Bar
If you’ve ever toured GrandTen’s distillery, chances are you’ve sampled their ever-growing line of spirits, from the flagship Wire Works gin to more recent entries like Rare Bird rum. But you’ve probably never ordered a cocktail in the distillery’s bare-bones tasting room.
That changes in January.
GrandTen’s Bar 383, named for the distillery’s Dorchester Avenue address, officially opens next month. The onetime tasting room has been upgraded to a full working bar, with plumbing, refrigeration, and plenty of seating. It will be Boston’s first “still-to-glass” experience, with guests able to drink craft cocktails made from spirits distilled on site.
The bar exists in large part thanks to a successful crowdfunding initiative that happened this past March. If the swiftness with which GrandTen achieved its funding goal is any indicator, Bar 383 will be a pretty happening place.
I’m honored to be able to give you a sneak peek, though GrandTen brand ambassador Lonnie Newburn emphasizes that what you see here isn’t the final version. There’ll be a few final touches, maybe some artwork, but you get the idea.
While Lonnie brought me up to speed on the imminent opening of the new bar, he gave me a sample of GrandTen’s latest product – a bottled version of a cocktail called the Godfather, made in collaboration with fellow Boston distillers Bully Boy.
This is a great story unto itself. In the strictest sense, GrandTen and Bully Boy are competitors – two Boston distilleries making small-batch spirits. Practically, though, they’re friendly rivals on the same team. Craft distilling, despite its growing popularity, still represents a small fraction of a global industry dominated by a handful of giant conglomerates.
Small outfits like GrandTen, Bully Boy, and so many others are collectively trying to gain a foothold. Progress for one represents a victory for all.
Although Bully Boy released a bottled Old Fashioned earlier this year, the Godfather is GrandTen’s first foray into the ready-to-drink business. If you’re unfamiliar with the cocktail, as I was, that’s no surprise. The traditional Godfather is made with scotch – which is typically consumed on its own – and amaretto, which hasn’t enjoyed the same resurgent popularity as other liqueurs.
This version, which has been aging in GrandTen’s distillery for the past year, combines Bully Boy’s whiskey and GrandTen’s Amandine, a barrel-aged almond liqueur that is infinitely better than amaretto. A touch of black walnut bitters rounds it out.
While not necessarily a holiday cocktail, the Godfather’s prominent nutty character makes it a fitting coda to a belt-loosening feast and a slice of pumpkin pie.
For the actual holiday cocktail, Lonnie focused on a pair of traditional seasonal flavors. GrandTen’s Craneberry liqueur is a rum-based cordial made with Cape Cod cranberries, and North County Apple Brandy is fermented and distilled from New England apples.
Lonnie hadn’t finalized the recipe, so we sampled a few variations. One version included GrandTen’s barrel-aged gin; another employed vermouth. And while any of these would have made for a splendid wintry libation, ultimately it was the simplest recipe that we agreed was best.
The Crane-Apple Sour combines the cranberry liqueur and the apple brandy with lemon juice and simple syrup.
Cranberry and apple are longtime partners, and here they combine for a crisp, tart cocktail with a little acidity from the citrus and just the right amount of sweetness. You won’t be able to order one at Bar 383 until it officially opens in January, but you can always stop by the distillery to pick up the core ingredients.
And if you’re hosting a holiday bash, Lonnie’s measurements allow for it to easily be scaled up into a good-sized punch.
- 1½ Ounces North County Straight Apple Brandy
- ½ Ounce Craneberry Liqueur
- ½ Ounces Lemon Juice
- ½ Ounces Brown or Raw Sugar Simple Syrup
- 2 Dashes Orange Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a slice of apple and/or cranberries.
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I’d like to extend my most heartfelt thanks to Amber, Mike, Tainah, and Lonnie for not only crafting such exceptional cocktails, but for taking time out of their busy schedules to discuss the ingredients and the stories behind them. They’re four very talented individuals and wonderful people to boot. I feel honored by their willingness to participate, and I appreciate the enthusiasm and energy they brought to this project.
Plus, amid the typical chaos of the season, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed sitting at their bars and learning about their creations – not to mention drinking them. I encourage you to do the same.
This will likely be my final post of the year, but the festivities will resume in January. In the meantime, I hope your holidays are safe, peaceful, merry, and warm.
As always, thank you for reading.
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