What would the holidays be without some bubbly with friends, or a Manhattan after dinner, or your annual glass of eggnog, or one glass of wine too many at the office party? I enjoy a good cocktail any time of year, but there’s something extra special about mixing up an old standby—or experimenting with new ingredients—during the holiday season. And if you have friends or family who partake, you can never go wrong by giving the gift of good alcohol.
Here are a few ideas if you want to go beyond the standard bottle of champagne, wine, vodka, whiskey or tequila. The following cocktail components are great if your friend already has a basic bar setup at home.
This sweet vermouth elevates a favorite bourbon or rye into a drink you’d be lucky to snag for under $12 at a decent bar. The Manhattan is my go-to cocktail when I want something quick but fancy at home. Lately, I’ve been mixing 2 parts of whatever bourbon’s lying around, 1 part Cocchi, and a couple dashes of cherry bark bitters, stirred over ice and served straight up.
I once used kalamata olive juice to make a dirty Martini. This was a terrible idea. “Hands-down, without a doubt, the grossest drink I’ve ever had,” says Marc. But I learned a valuable lesson that day: If you’re going to make a Martini, you better use quality ingredients.
Dolin dry vermouth is worlds better than the Martini & Rossi extra dry you’ve no doubt seen gathering dust in someone’s pantry. It’s especially tasty paired with a dry gin. If your friend prefers something easier to drink, try Lillet Blanc. It’s the key ingredient in one of my favorite sippers, the Vesper Martini.
If they like Margaritas, buy Cointreau.
Good blanco tequila (like Espolón) + fresh lime juice + Cointreau = my favorite Margarita on the planet. So simple. So delicious. (So strong.)
If they like sparkling wine, buy Aperol.
Ever heard of an Aperol Spritz? According to Aperol: In a wine glass full of ice, add 3 parts prosecco (I like LaMarca), 2 parts Aperol, a splash of soda, and an orange wheel to garnish. Aperol is a bitter (but not as bitter as Campari) orange aperitif, and I probably only consume it in its namesake spritz. But damn are they delicious and fun to drink. This is a great bottle for someone who likes to entertain. Friends don’t let friends drink prosecco alone!
If they like sweet (but not too sweet) cocktails, buy Luxardo Maraschino.
This is the bottle that made me love making cocktails. According to Luxardo’s tasting notes, it’s “a complex liqueur with a persistent cherry aroma. Smooth but sharp, this liqueur has a rounded flavor with notes of cherries and rosewater.” You’ll find Luxardo Maraschino in classic cocktails like the Aviation, Hemingway Daiquiri, Last Word, and Martinez, to name a few. It’ll definitely take a home bar up a notch.
If they like it bitter, buy Fernet-Branca.
Years ago, at a shitty dive bar in Chicago, I ordered Malört for the first time. An old Polish man saw this and said, “Is good for stomach!” while patting his belly. Malört is a detestable bitter herbal liqueur that’s become something of a rite of passage in Chicago. It makes us feel better to believe that it’s “good for stomach.” Is it? Probably not. But I wholeheartedly give in to the placebo effect of aperitifs and digestifs.
The same goes for Fernet-Branca, which is a type of amaro, another bitter herbal liqueur. But F-B, unlike Malört, has a taste that I’ve grown to love. It’s got a hint of peppermint that clears your nasal passages, and it’s the perfect after-dinner sipper to trick yourself into believing alcohol is healthy.
If they like tiki drinks, buy orgeat syrup.
If you really want to impress your cocktail-loving friend, you can make your own orgeat. You’ll need almonds, orange-flower water, a little vodka, and sugar. It’s a somewhat time-consuming process, and it’s not cheap, but it yields a pretty delicious syrup for Mai Tais, Fog Cutters, and probably a billion other tiki drinks I have yet to try. A faster, cheaper option is to buy a bottle of Torani orgeat syrup and call it a day. It’ll never beat homemade orgeat, but it makes a perfectly serviceable Mai Tai.
If they like a good garnish, buy Luxardo cherries.
Yes, it might be silly to spend $20 on a jar of cherries. But these aren’t your typical bright-red maraschinos. They’re complex and nutty, and the thick syrup is a delicious cocktail addition on its own. Plus, unless you’re drinking four Manhattans a night, they’ll last for months. These are serious cherries, y’all.
If they like to experiment, buy flavored bitters.
I can’t keep up with the bevy of flavored bitters available on the market. Cherry. Black walnut. Black pepper. Rhubarb. Mexican mole. Barbecue. Name any flavor, and there’s probably a company crafting bitters in said flavor. They’re incredibly fun to experiment with in a Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, Bloody Mary, and more. Fee Brothers is always a safe bet, but, by all means, go bitters-brand-crazy.
I’m always looking for new alcohols to experiment with. Tried anything weird/awesome/delicious lately? Let me know in the comments below, and happy mixing! (Because we all know you need to buy yourself a little something when you’re shopping for gifts at the liquor store. You deserve it.)