December dawns and the rubber hits the road on a truckload of festive traditions. Granted, the supermarkets were peddling tubs of Quality Street, mince pies and glitter-spangled bottles of gin as soon as the cordite flashes from the fifth-of-November fireworks signalled the start of the long slide towards Christmas.
But the seasonal juggernaut really hits its stride when the first door on the Lego advent calendar is opened. From then on, it’s pretty much open season on turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwiches, sprouts-as-an-obligatory-side, and hot chocolate adulterated with liqueurs that most of us wouldn’t give the time of day at any other time of the year (we’re looking at you, Baileys).
A warming wet to your whistle
As the days get shorter and colder, it’s perhaps logical that our approach to drinks leans more heavily into sweeter, heavier and spicier notes. Also, with party season firmly underway, hot wine-based drinks have become a seasonal staple for good reason – because they are tailor-made to be ladled from a large bowl and make the perfect table centrepiece.
The roots of this tradition are older than you might imagine, though. In fact, it’s possible to trace ‘mulled’ wines like Germany’s Glühwein to their Roman origins: the basic blend of red wine, together with warming spices, citrus fruits and sugar followed the advance of the Roman Empire across Europe and beyond.
By the eighteenth century, the English had developed their own take on mulled wine (of course they had), satirically known as ‘the ecclesiastics’. Charles Dickens* references this tradition in A Christmas Carol, when a reformed Scrooge invites his hapless employee, Bob Cratchit, to discuss his plans for a slightly less tragedy-filled future over a ‘bowl of Smoking Bishop’, a robust concoction of port, bitter oranges, sugar, cinnamon and cloves.
The single-serving equivalent of hot punch is, of course, the toddy. According to US author and renowned punch expert David Wondrich, the earliest published toddy recipe dates from 1801, though it was a fairly loose term coined to describe any spirit mixed with sugar and boiling water. Today, toddies are usually made with whisky and maybe a little lemon, although rum is the spirit of choice in central European countries like Switzerland, and Austria.
Variety is the spice of life
While a warming cup of mulled wine might still be a treat at a street fair, hot spirit drinks have generally fallen out of fashion in favour of more contemporary spiced cocktails.
Ginger is a genius ingredient for adding fragrant heat to a winter cocktail. If you have a couple of bottles of premium ginger beer to hand, you’ll be able to turn out more than a few classics, including a Moscow Mule (vodka, lime and ginger beer), a Dark and Stormy (swap the vodka for rum) and a Foghorn (ditto, gin). Alternatively, you can use ginger liqueur/ginger bitters to add a spicy twist to classic cocktails – pair with vermouth in a Martini, swap for orange liqueur in a Margarita or add to Bourbon for a seasonal take on an Old Fashioned.
If you haven’t got ginger liqueur, fresh ginger infused in a simple sugar syrup is a great way to pep up mixers. Ginger partners wonderfully well with any spirit, though rum and vodka probably make the most harmonious marriages.
At Edmunds, we’ve taken festive spicing to the next level by blending Sapling Vodka, FAIR Café liqueur and cold brew espresso with a tempting trio of syrups – vanilla, sugar and gingerbread – to make a limited edition treat: Gingerbread Espresso Martini. Simply shake with ice, strain into a martini or coupe glass and serve with friends and your favourite Christmas movie**.
*Apparently, Dickens was an enthusiastic consumer of mulled wine and punch, and even invented his own brandy/rum recipe which was designed to be set alight before being served.
**You do know that Die Hard isn’t actually a Christmas film, right?