The holidays are a time for cocktails. But they’re also a time for holiday cocktails, those special concoctions created by bartenders especially for the season of celebration. Whether you’re going for drinks in sun-splashed L.A. or the sub-arctic cold of Milwaukee, these are the 11 holiday cocktails worth ordering in bars now.
Can't get out to any of the bars serving these great holiday drinks? Try mixing the Pera de Madeira from this list at home.
Fort Defiance is a café, bar and soda fountain all in one in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. You can sip Counter Culture coffee with biscuit breakfast sandwiches in the morning or settle in for lunch or dinner. Thankfully, house-made sodas and cocktails are on offer around the clock. Bartender Stephen Bielawski created the Pera de Madeira for the winter holidays, blessed with rum funk and green freshness from aged Avuá Bálsamo aged cachaça and a blend of Denizen and Smith & Cross rums. Matcha syrup brings grassy notes, balanced by fruity, sour pear and lemon juices.
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In celebration of its 15th anniversary as Elixir in November (and 160th year as a historic saloon), the new menu from owner H. Joseph Ehrmann, bar managers Nick DesEnfants and Shea Shawnson, and the team glows with winter-worthy ingredients like scotch, turmeric and allspice. Ehrmann’s Pamplemousse au Poivre won 2018 Cocktail of the Year in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and it’s easy to taste why. With its mix of Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Giffard crème de pamplemousse rose, Sichuan pepper cordial and The Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters. Served over crushed ice and dotted with pink peppercorns, it’s a savory-tart-smoky alternative to creamy holiday cocktails.
Bittercube, a popular bitters company started by former Chicago bartenders Ira Koplowitz and Nicholas Kosevich, just opened an 8,700-square-foot production space, shop and bar, Bittercube Bar & Bazaar, in Milwaukee. They kick off the new bar, and the holidays, with the Season 1 Boulevardier. A high-rye bourbon forms the base, mixed with Cocchi Rosa aperitivo, Meletti amaro and Bittercube orange bitters. The result is a gentian-forward bitter balanced by bold fruit, bourbon’s silkiness and a kick of orange. Holiday cheer comes in a bronzed chocolate spoon garnish cradling strawberry boba.
Chicago’s Beacon Tavern comforts during the winter freeze with lobster corn fritters and duck confit. Head bartender Alex Schmaling releases three seasonal menus each year, tributing the holidays with plenty of rum and spice. The Manners Maketh Man is the ultimate showcase of both, bold with funky Jamaican rum, lime and allspice and alternately nutty and fruity with oloroso sherry and ripe banana. But the drink’s spice-forward secret is a touch of aquavit, adding a holiday-worthy layer of caraway and anise.
For Los Angeles’ most innovative cocktails, head to Redbird. Bar vet Tobin Shea’s elegant creations often feature rare and unusual spirits, from Armenian mulberry brandy to Austrian carrot eau-de-vie. The wintery sipper the Blackthorn plays dark berries and red wine off the subtle bitter, herbaceous silkiness of Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz gin, Aperol, Karabakh Armenian mulberry vodka and Tempus Fugit Alessio Chinato vermouth.
Winter chill is forgotten inside Louisville’s subterranean Hell or High Water, a romantic multi-room dream of books, wood, red velvet booths and private rooms. Co-owners Maud and Stirling Welch and bartender Doug Pettry’s Sittin’ Pretty cocktail feels like a holiday in the desert, with toasted sage and The Perfect Purée prickly pear purée brightening up blanco tequila, demerara syrup and Bittercube Bolivar bitters, served in a glass smoked with sage.
Raved-about Detroit restaurant Lady of the House keeps it warm during freezing Michigan winters with chef Kate Williams’ dishes, sherry on draft, a house gin collaboration with Detroit City distillery and a no-waste philosophy. Jonathan Shock employs the house gin in cocktails like the Lady Gin & Tonic, lively with pickle brine and black pepper. Through the end of December, holiday fun includes the Walkabout cocktail. The agave freshness and sultry smokiness of tequila and mezcal are given bitter backbone from Salers gentian, tart spice from lime and ginger, and wintery alpine blueberry pine notes from a float of Pasubio amaro.
Down a tree-lined dirt road on the edge of a lavender field, Los Poblanos Inn is an idyllic inn and organic farm in north Albuquerque. Lofty wood-lined Campo restaurant sources ingredients from the farm, offering striking views of the mountains and surrounding farmland. A New Mexican holiday is best served by spice and a little mezcal, and the Verano en Oaxaca cocktail does just that with a rosy mix of Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Campari, fresh grapefruit, a splash of Jarritos Mexican soda and vibrant seasonal peppers.
Whitechapel is home to one of the world’s largest gin selections with more 600 bottles selected by a powerhouse team of Martin Cate (Smugglers Cove), John Park and Alex Smith. Bar manager Megan Daniel’s 12 new winter drinks celebrate the holidays California-style. The Nocturne Op. 9 features black rice coconut horchata, calling on S.F.’s dense Asian and Mexican influence, mixed with Bimini dry gin, Arette blanco tequila, Licor 43, S.F.’s own Cannella cinnamon liqueur, just a touch of orange juice, lime and a silky layer of egg white.
Shaun Traxler and team have fun with holiday cocktail names like the Hey Sanka at Fayetteville’s Vault. The bar makes and infuses ingredients in-house, from bitters to curried goat’s milk. The Very Sunny Christmas cocktail steeps tableside in a porthole infuser (first popularized at Chicago’s Aviary) with a mix of Avuá cachaça, ginger, cranberries, mint, rosemary, pine needles and citrus. The result is a beautifully funky, tart sipper, exuding forest aromas from pine and rosemary and warm spice from fresh ginger.
Mixing your cocktail