Lightening up winter cocktails while keeping spirits high
While a festive glass of thick, rich eggnog remains the iconic holiday cocktail, guests at establishments across the country are requesting drinks that embrace the season’s flavors in lighter ways. They’re fortunate to be drinking in 2019, as today’s bartenders not only have the tools and techniques of the craft cocktail movement—they have access to better ingredients than ever before.
A successful winter cocktail menu is one that pairs well with the food on offer, says Torrence O’Haire, sommelier and corporate beverage director of Gage Hospitality Group. The company owns five restaurants in Chicago, including The Gage, Coda di Volpe and Beacon Tavern.
“Fall and winter dishes tend to be richer, sweeter and more aromatically spiced, so I approach cocktails from the need to balance against the meal,” O’Haire explains. “Cleaner flavor profiles to balance the aromatics of holiday food, a focus on acid and bitterness to balance richness, and drier, lighter textures to balance sweetness.”
To achieve this while keeping the cocktail’s potency in check, he suggests using “low-proof spirits, wines and non-alcoholic agents” in place of traditional spirits like vodka, gin and whiskey.
“One of my favorites is my Madeira Cobbler, an old-school drink composed of wine, sugar and fruit,” O’Haire says. “Using Madeira with seasonal fruits and spices gives you something balanced, complex
and interesting that isn’t any more powerful than a glass of wine.”
To lower the amount of sugar in a cocktail without losing flavor, it helps to realize why it’s there in the first place.
“Rougher or less-polished ingredients often have coarse edges or off notes,” he warns. “You can cover those up with extra sugar, but if you’re avoiding the calories, a nicer, higher-quality spirit would have fewer flaws to hide.”
The secret, then, is experimenting with different combinations until you get your recipe just right.
“A well-balanced cocktail includes bitter, savory, herbal, floral and/or even salty notes, with acid to balance, and the proper water-dilution to bring everything together,” O’Haire says. “Find opportunities to improve the flavor from a balance standpoint, and you’ll need to use less sugar to make up the difference.”
The trend isn’t limited to upscale restaurants. Even the Miracle family of Christmas-themed pop-up bars—brightly adorned winter wonderlands that offer an immersive holiday experience—offers guests lighter options on its menu of craft cocktails.
“People are lightening up, and our drinks reflect that,” says Joann Spiegel, general manager. “We’ve made sure they’re not all the eggnog-style options you would expect.”
She continues: “I’ve added a great ;martini-style gin cocktail made with a pine tea cordial and some eucalyptus bitters. Another drink is very sherry-forward and a bit lower in ABV, without a lot of citrus or syrup.”
“I’ve added a great martini-style gin cocktail made with a pine tea cordial and some eucalyptus bitters.”
- Joann Spiegel, General Manager of Miracle, describing the Koala-La La La, La La La La (pictured below)