A spirited Christmas cocktail guide

Christmas, and particularly Christmas Day, can be fraught with drinking disasters. Joel Harrison provides a guide to cocktails for the big day, and offers advice on how to keep thirsty guests feeling merry

Words by Joel Harrison

christmas whisky cocktail

During the Christmas period, time truly bends and melts. Not just a single moment, but a long stretch of solace, it’s the ideal chance to catch up with loved ones. One thing you can never legislate for, though, is that knock on the door from a random relative or long-lost friend. Along with a mountain of mince pies or stollen bites, your impromptu guests will likely expect a drink. By far and away the easiest option to cater for these unexpected drop-ins is to have a vast pot of mulled wine or cider bubbling away on the stove.

Mulled cider is my personal preference over mulled wine; the lighter fruity notes of the base cider and the mulling spices bring together a communion of cinnamon and apple. However, mulled wine has the one excellent advantage of being a cauldron that will gobble up the cheap red wine that many of your less drink-savvy guests may well arrive with. It will even take a bad bottle of port or sherry and turn it into a remarkably drinkable substance. This stuff is magic. A Christmas miracle.

mulled wine
Joel Harrison says mulled wine can be a crowdpleaser, as well as an excellent way to use up any less-than-premium bottles of red

When it comes to the big day itself, hopefully there will be less surprise visits and you can map out your drinking a bit more measuredly. A simple Buck’s Fizz is a great way to start your cocktail journey for the day. But as the hours roll on, the drinks should move up in complexity and flavour. Following on from a fruity Buck’s Fizz, a French 75 (sugar, lemon juice, gin and Champagne) will keep you right; plus, staying on the bubbly road to mid-afternoon delight is no bad thing.

With combinations like the Sidecar – Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice – I can see why the French never really got into drinking tea

My next mixed drink would take me to something a bit richer – the perfect step-up is the Sidecar. Staying with French-made ingredients, this combines Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice in a shaken drink that has the remarkable effect of being both warming and refreshing at the same time. I can see why, with a combination like that, the French never really got into drinking tea.

As the day goes on, you may well take a break for some wine. Which is fine. Honestly. There are (as I have noted before) excellent spirits to pair with your food as an alternative to wine. But really, if you must, go with wine for your Christmas meal. I can understand that…

sloe gin and sloe berries
Dark, berry-infused sloe gin will take your Negroni to new festive heights

After dinner, it’s a different story, though. Neat spirits will play a part for many while grazing away later in the day. But post-lunch, can I interest you in a Sloe Gin Negroni? The simple mix of sloe gin, Campari and sweet vermouth served over ice is all the pleasure of the adored Italian cocktail, but it swaps out the gin for the richer, darker, sloe-berry version. If you dial back slightly on the Campari, you’ll find a drink that gives fruity, spicy, Christmas flavours in spades. The perfect partner for your cheeseboard.

After the Negroni, I would always suggest an Old Fashioned. With the addition of maple syrup in place of the normal sugar, and a cinnamon stick to stir down with, you’ll have a brilliant Christmas cocktail that will bridge the gap between the fruity sloe gin and your next stop: neat spirits.

whisky pouring
Joel Harrison: 'It is Christmas Day, so don’t skimp on the good stuff'

As the day draws to a close, you’ll likely reach for a whisky or brandy. Here, my advice is simple: it is Christmas Day, so don’t skimp on the good stuff. Open that bottle you’ve always wanted to drink. Pour yourself a large measure or two. And relax and enjoy. It is a day like no other, after a year (if not two) like no other.


  • You might have elderflower pegged as a summer flavour. While it’s wonderfully refreshing in the warmer months, Italian vermouth brand Starlino has released an elderflower aperitif that uses Italian alpine elderflowers, citrus peel, herbs and spices – and is brilliant in a warming drink using gin and hot water. Perfect for the hipflask.
  • Scotch has once again been a mainstay of my drinking this month. I was lucky enough to try the incredible Bowmore Onyx 51 year old, of which only one bottle was made and sold for over £400,000. It was one of a number of lots for a charity auction run by the Worshipful Company of Distillers that raised nearly £2.5m in total for charities mostly based in Scotland. Time to start saving up for the next auction.
  • Alongside Scotch, Irish whiskey has blown me away this month, particularly the latest release from the Method & Madness range. Made from 60 percent rye and 40 percent malted barley, it has been produced at the experimental micro-distillery within the grounds of the legendary Midleton distillery near Cork – home to such amazing whiskeys as Redbreast, Green Spot, Jameson and of course Midleton Very Rare. The complex flavours are sure to please any fan of the Irish stuff.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.