The holiday season is rushing toward us faster than Santa’s sleigh and before you can say “Ho Ho Ho” it will be that time of year – the time for giving, the time for family, and of course, the time for parties! If you are one who spends most of the holiday season careening between family get-togethers, friends’ parties and other festivities, chances are you know it’s the time of year to make sure you have a fully stocked bar and wine cellar.
If you’re hosting a holiday dinner party you will likely be having wine with dinner choosing something low in alcohol to start is a good idea. Sparkling Moscato with a slice of orange, or fresh Bellinis (typically peach juice or peach puree with Prosecco) will “set the mood just right for a special occasion, but not overpower the palate with alcohol before a lovely meal.
Cocktail parties call for a bit more in your bar and you’ll need to stock up. There are no rules when it comes to stocking a bar, and stocking up doesn’t have to break the bank. Follow your preferences and those of your most frequent guests, then stock your bar with the basics, and you should be able to handle any occasion.
What to stock
When it comes to Vodka, you can afford to go by price. Lower-priced vodkas don’t impart bad harsh flavors the way other cheaper liquors might. Good bets for 750 milliliter bottles are Absolut ($25) and Sobieski ($14) if you prefer a 1.75 bottle try Svedka ($20) It’s a great deal.
There’s no need to spend a lot on tasty gin, since this liquor is usually combined with other ingredients, like tonic. Just don’t go so cheap that you wind up sipping one with an artificial-juniper flavor. Here, go for Gordon’s ($10), Hendricks ($36) or Bulldog ($24.)
When it comes to bourbon it’s better to spend a little more. Less expensive bourbons tend to give you the burn without the flavor. Two good choices are Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek, both $35 for 750 milliliters. Willett in the pot still bottle sells for around $43 and is really fantastic. If you have a real bourbon afficianado, try Booker’s Bourbon; $60 for 750 milliliters.
Rum is another spirit where you shouldn’t pinch pennies. Rum should bring a rich sugarcane flavor to drinks, however, a low-end rum can totally miss on those rich sugar and molasses flavors leaving you to wonder what happened. Good choices include Mount Gay Eclipse ($38), Kirk & Sweeney 12-year ($30) for 750 milliliters, or Brugal Extra Viejo ($29).
Many cocktail lovers steer clear of this spirit in winter. But true tequila lovers know you need 100 percent blue agave tequila, nothing else will do, because many cheap tequilas contain corn syrup, coloring and grain alcohol, which are code words for “hangover.” Here, look for Patrón Silver ($35), Karma Añejo ($36) or Cazadores Reposado ($46.)
Whiskey and Scotch
This is one area you definitely cannot afford to scrimp. Since most party-goers seem to prefer to drink whiskey on the rocks, straight or with a “wee drop of water”, it’s worth the expense. A favorite is Glenmorangie Single Malt ($40), Bunnahabhain ($50), Pig’s Nose (a blended Scotch at $29) and—for Irish Whiskey lovers—Concannon Irish Whiskey $22 for 750 milliliters.
Don’t forget the Mixers like Club Soda and Tonic! Going budget on these only offers minimal savings as many store brands tend to go flat more quickly, and cheaper tonics can have an overpowering artificial taste. so opt for your favorite here.
When it comes to fruit juices, home-squeezed juices make all the difference. (Buy 25 lemons, 25 limes, and 15 oranges for every 50 guests.) If that’s not possible go with your favorite brand that you like to drink.
Because it is the holiday season, splurge and dress up your basic cocktail with plenty of fun, festive garnishes. Some of the more popular ones are olives, cocktail onions, lemons, limes, and Maraschino cherries, so try to keep them handy. You may want to add a few new and different bright, thin-skinned fruits like kumquats, key limes, Meyer lemons, tangerines, blood oranges, star fruit, pineapple and apple. For more savory flavorings, stock up on mint, basil, celery, cucumber and jalapeño. Seasonal berries, like raspberries and cranberries or currants, are perfect for floating in a glass of champagne or another bubbly cocktail. Pomegranate seeds and fresh mint make for pretty, aromatic garnishes, while edible gold and silver are perfect for adding a holiday sparkle,
If you’re hosting a holiday open house or any other large gathering, think about serving a seasonal drink in a large format. Not only does serving a punch, mulled wine, or a batch of eggnog make getting a drink easy for any guest, it also enables you to make something more elaborate ahead of time (instead of mixing and re-mixing the same cocktail all evening). Here’s a helpful hint: freeze a large block of ice (using filtered water in a Tupperware container), to put in your punch so that it doesn’t get watered down too fast. Our personal favorites are Planters Punch and Homemade Eggnog, but you may want to try a tradional Mulled Wine or a warm Cider libation. Other drinks that are often in high demand are winter wines (Think Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Merlot and Shiraz).
For Mulled Wine, start with a rich red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot work best and it doesn’t neet to be expensive (just good) Here, we recommend Crosby Cabernet Sauvignon (California at $8.99) and add orange, brandy—or try Gran Gala Orange Liqueuer ($22) instead of orange and brandy— with cloves, honey, cinnamon & ginger and you have one delicious drink to warm everyone.
Of course, traditional home made Eggnog calls for Eggs, milk, cream, bourbon, sugar, brandy, fresh nutmeg and cinnamon. In our world, grating fresh whole nutmeg and Four Roses Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($21) are de rigueur, making this one special.
With Cider, opt for local favorites like Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy ($25) and Delicious Orchards Apple Cider blended with honey, cinnamon, orange juice, spices and lemon. You’ll feel so “revolutionary”.
For New Year’s Eve, it’s easy. Just add a touch of sparkle to everything with Champagne, even your favorite cocktails. Use edible gold and silver flakes for a sparkly finish to any drink. You can never have too much fun — or be too creative — when creating festive cocktails during the holidays.
All of the prices quoted are from Circus Wines, Route 35 North, Middletown, NJ and Spirits Unlimited, Newman Springs Road, Red Bank, NJ.