8 easy ways to fancy up your holiday cocktails at home

No bartenders staffing your virtual holiday party this year? No problem

By Erin Keane
Published December 19, 2020 5:30PM (EST)
Christmas Cherry Martini on bar top counter with christmas lights in background (Getty Images)
Christmas Cherry Martini on bar top counter with christmas lights in background (Getty Images)

Unwinding my scarf and sinking into a warm dive-bar booth for a long-overdue happy hour with old friends, the soft glow of neon transforming us into the people we were when we first met. Popping into that tavern with the good Hot Toddy next to the little shop that always has the perfect gift as I go over my shopping list one last time. Selecting the right signature drink for the holiday party. Ordering an elaborate concoction for no other reason than Mariah Carey and Wham! songs are playing in this hotel lounge, and I'm early for once and the menu makes it sound like a liquid cookie. 

Cocktails might not command as much space in our holiday imaginations as baked goods and elaborate family meals, but they can add a bit of sparkle to the holiday season, especially when yesterday's snow has turned to dirty slush and the windchill dips as the sun sets before the workday is even done. 

There are some basic ways to treat your drink well for the holidays that also work any time of the year — order a fancy cocktail delivery from a local purveyor, stock up on your favorite wine for meals, upgrade your house cocktail bases (my suggestions: Bacardí Ocho, their 8-year aged rum; the versatile Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon; a Copper & Kings specialty gin like The Ninth). But sometimes it's nice to play bartender and put some party pants on an everyday drink, even if it's just to show off at your next Zoom party

If you just want to add a little holiday spirit to your spirits, here are some easy, seasonal ways to level up your regular drink — just a bit — this year. I've split them into two broad categories: things to make and things to buy. 

Things to make:

Clove-studded orange wheel
When I'm feeling nostalgic for old-fashioned homemade Christmas decor, I channel the pomander ball — those traditional hanging decorations made from oranges studded with cloves, strung up on ribbons to dry. The combination of orange and clove smells amazing, and it pairs well with one of my go-to drinks: the Old Fashioned (muddle bitters with a sugar cube, then stir in a shot of bourbon and some ice, serve with orange peel and cocktail cherry). You can garnish a drink like the Old Fashioned with a clove-studded orange wheel instead of a peel: slice the fruit, stick a few whole cloves into the orange flesh or the rind edge and slide it in after the ice. The aroma and flavor intensify as you drink, adding a spicy dimension to the Old Fashioned's classic flavors. Pomander wheels also fancy up a glass of spiked hot cider, mulled wine or other seasonal hot spiced drinks. You can also dry the orange slices first — see the next item. 

Sweet dried orange slices
Another way to add a zip of citrus to your winter drinks is to dehydrate orange slices with a shake of sugar to give your garnish a homemade hygge touch. I wouldn't think it out of place in a Christmas margarita, either. Blood oranges look particularly dramatic when dried. Slice some oranges, arrange them on a lined baking sheet and dust them with confectioner's sugar. Bake at 200 degrees for 2 to 2.5 hours, or until they look done.  (Here's a "Things to Buy" crossover: You can also buy sweetened dried orange slices at Trader Joe's, and your local fruit market probably sells them, too.)

RELATED: How to make a perfect Hot Toddy, the whiskey cocktail to keep you warm this winter

Candied rosemary
With a bit of sugaring, a sprig of rosemary becomes a nod to a frosted evergreen. As a garnish, it can turn any number of simple cocktails into "special menu" seasonal fare. Make over your basic Cape Codder (the perennial favorite vodka-cran), Greyhound (gin or vodka + grapefruit juice) or various "this is already open" spritzers or mimosas with a garnish that looks way fancier than it actually is. Take one sprig of rosemary — think about what size glass you're going to use it in before you cut — spray or dip in water, then dust with superfine sugar. Let it dry for at least an hour. 

Infusions
Cocktails made with infused spirits sound fancy, because they require a waiting period. Other than that, they're the easiest craft on this list. All you need is the foundation spirit, a mason jar, items to flavor and a way to sift them out (you can tie the flavorings into cheesecloth bundles or those linen mulling spice bags, or just freeform it and then strain through any fine-mesh sieve or cloth at the end of the infusion period). Then add time. You're pretty much only limited by your imagination and willingness to experiment. Try infusing a rum like Don Q Gold or Havana Club Añejo Clásico with cacao nibs for a hint of chocolate in your eggnog, or play around with a rosemary-infused gin to make a wintery Negroni

Infusions also make great gifts, as I learned recently when my friends Greg and Abigail dropped off some homemade vanilla chai bourbon. Greg was kind enough to share his method: In a jar, add a split vanilla bean (or a hint of extract, if you're raiding your cupboards) and 2 to 3 teaspoons of loose chai blend (or open and empty 2 teabags) to 3 cups of bourbon (he used Old Forester). Shake it up, and let it steep in the dark for about a week. Some infusions take longer; you have to taste-test and see. I used Greg's vanilla chai bourbon as a base for an Old Fashioned Fun Family Christmas — that's my at-home fancy holiday version of an Old Fashioned, which is made with with a clove-studded orange wheel, the good cherries and smoked cinnamon bitters (see below). 

Things to buy:

Specialty bitters
In addition to your standards — Angostura, Peychaud's bitters — I've found one of the best ways to add a seasonal nod to a cocktail is to change up the bitters. My little bottle of Old Forester's Smoked Cinnamon bitters, inspired by Master Taster Jackie Zykan's memories of her grandmother's Christmas "whiskey cookies," gets a workout this time of year. The classic paper-wrapped Fee Brothers bottle comes in an Aztec Chocolate flavor and Boker's Cardamom Bitters, which reminds me of the Scandinavian baked goods I crave this time of year. Boutique bitters are also a joy to discover — look around at your favorite local purveyors, and see what they have in stock. If you can think of a flavor profile, there's probably a bitters out there to help slant your favorite cocktail in that direction. 

Good cherries
An evergreen suggestion, but quality cocktail cherries also remind me of my late Grandma Tillie, a woman of few requests who loved getting a box of chocolate covered cherry cordials at Christmas. Thanks to their ubiquity on sundaes and in Shirley Temples, a cherry does add a pop of childhood nostalgia — always welcome at the holidays — to any drink. But we're not kids anymore, so one way to help these little dudes make the leap to adulthood too is to throw out the jar of sickly-sweet day-glo grocery store maraschinos that's squatted in the back of the fridge for years. Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are gold standard for a reason, but you also can't beat the classic packaging of Amarena Fabbri Italian sour cherries if you want to feel fancy. I'm also partial to Griottines, a French brand of Morello cherries macerated in Kirsch and other liqueurs. It's as much about the cherry as the swirl of liqueur that comes with it in the spoon — the richer and deeper the flavor, the better. 

RELATED: From chartreuse to vermouth: David Lebovitz's cocktails will take you on a sensory journey to France

Gingerbread mug hangers
Here, stick this little gingerbread man or house on the rim of your glass. Just do it. It's a cookie! Hanging off your drink! It's whimsical, super low-effort and a little forced! Like you're drinking in the TGI Friday's at the mall by your mom's house! I mean, it's weird the things we miss now that we can't do them, right! We're fine, really! (This is also a "Thing You Can Make" — search for "mug hanger cookie cutters" — if you also want to make your kitchen smell like your mom's before the annual cookie exchange. No, really, we're fine!)

Drinkable glitter
Want to look fancy on screen with near-zero effort? Or maybe your Instagram feed desperately misses its portraits of lovingly-constructed themed cocktails from branded pop-ups? Normally I'm not one for adding things to a cocktail just to make them look impressive. But when you just want a regular drink (but make it fashion), this absurd cocktail accessory is a tasteless (literally) and tasteful (well, debatable) addition. I sprinkled Signature Drink Labs' Shimmer Glitter Dust into a good Manhattan (gothy!) and a lackluster canned sauvignon blanc (sparkles!), and I can confirm that it will not leave a ring of glitter around your mouth as I initially feared. What does it do? It's glitter. For your drink. Take it from there. Happy New Year!

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Alcohol Cocktails Drinks Food Holidays List Spirits