Spirited celebrations: Tips to enjoy Christmas drinking

Christmas is around the corner and Joel Harrison has five top tips to help you make the most of festive drinks during party season

Words by Joel Harrison

‘It’s Christmas!’, as Noddy Holder of Slade once bellowed. And don’t we just know it. From Wham! and Mariah invading our ears at every turn, to garish Christmas jumpers that seem to have somehow become the ironic fashion choice of an entire generation, no one could fail to notice that the season of goodwill has rolled around once again.

You may or may not believe in Santa Claus or indeed the religious thrust behind this holiday period but surely we can all agree that Christmas is a time at which drink is the fulcrum of pretty much every event. As such, it makes sense to take the refreshments seriously and plan ahead a little for this ‘most wonderful time of the year’.

It wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t fulfil my duty as a drinks writer (and experienced festive imbiber) by passing on my tips on how to enjoy cocktails and spirits during this most lubricated of seasons. With drink options as complicated as family relationships and opportunities to serve (and be served) as varied as Santa’s journey across the globe, I hope these pointers keep you in fesitive cheer throughout Christmas and New Year.

Ice is essential for Christmas cocktails at parties, even if getting hold of the clear ice used in good bars isn't possible

1. Ice

My firs tip: don’t run out of ice. There is always pressure on fridge and freezer space at Christmas but don’t sacrifice ice for another pack of frozen canapés. If you’re ‘lucky’ enough to live somewhere cold – and I mean literally freezing – you might be able to store some bags of ice outside, but where I live has been almost warm enough for t-shirts on Christmas Day in the last few years. Please heed my mantra: ‘you run out of ice, you run out of party’.

2. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

After ensuring you have sufficient ice, plan your drinks procurement strategy to ensure you have a well stocked cabinet. This is not just about booze; mixers are key here, as is fresh fruit. There have been multiple times as a guest at a party when I’ve been ushered to the drinks cabinet and asked to make a cocktail. Aside from extra strong drinks such as a Negroni, Martini or a Manhattan, it’s difficult to whip up a mixed drink with booze alone. Ensure you have a good supply of fresh citrus fruits, soda and tonic waters, and ginger ale.

Ensuring you have fresh fruit and vegetables to use as garnishes for cocktails, punch and soft drinks will add an extra dimension to the drinks served

3. Slow and steady wins the race

As glamorous as it is to serve Martinis and Manhattans – and this should be encouraged – if you’re having a party, it pays to have a variety of cocktails and mixed drinks, including lower alcohol options, as part of the selection on offer. People are more aware of the alcoholic content of their beers and wines these days (both of which can vary by 4-5% per bottle) but cocktails are a journey into the unknown. What we can be assured of, however, is that a single G&T will be lower in alcohol than a dry Martini. So make sure you and your guests have options and drink sensibly through a party.

4. Pre-batch

‘Pre-batching’ – pre-preparing cocktails in one single, large amount – is a term that seems to have become pretty mainstream recently but it has been done for generations in the form of punch. A punch is a great way to make a drink that can be shared throughout the evening and it’s up to you to invent the recipe. Mine is thus: two parts fruit juices from a carton, one part spirits, plus some freshly squeezed citrus juices. Punch is also a great way to use up spirits you might have knocking around.

By way of an example, I made a punch for a recent festive street party. I used cranberry juice, cachaça (a type of Brazilian white rum), some dark rum and freshly squeezed lime juice. That went with ice into a five-litre Kilner jar with a tap. Paper cups containing more ice and fresh mint were on hand for drinkers.

You can also pre-batch smaller amounts in empty, clean bottles. I’m a fan of a pre-batched Old Fashioned (the Maple Syrup one from my book 60-Second Cocktails) at Christmas, which I keep in the fridge and pour into tumblers as and when the mood takes me. It saves me time and means I always have something interesting ready for guests too.

5. And finally… cocktails don’t always have to be alcoholic

There are plenty of options for low or no versions of cocktails at Christmas. I love a Black Velvet – Guinness and Champagne – on Christmas morning, served in a chilled pewter tankard. This year however, I’m going to try it with Guinness 0.0, perhaps the best non-alcoholic version of any drink on the market today, to lower the cocktail’s strength and give me a (slightly) more sensible morning tipple.

The web is awash with alcohol-free cocktail recipes, so there should be a drink to suit whoever wants a drink, at whatever time they want it. Occasions for celebratory drinks are varied and numerous during the Christmas period, so it never hurts to opt for the odd no or low option in amongst the standard alcoholic favourites, particularly given how much they’ve improved in recent years.

Ultimately, the best tip for Christmas drinking is to ensure you enjoy yourself and the company of others, whatever is in your glass.

What Joel will be drinking this Christmas

  • I’ve fallen a little bit in love with a new rum – the Colección Visionaria 01 – from Dominican rum brand Brugal. Made from 100% local molasses, this column-still produced rum was aged in bourbon and oloroso sherry barrels, before being transferred to European virgin oak barrels that were toasted using Dominican cocoa beans. Sounds mad, tastes amazing and I think is a good price too, at around £75 a bottle.
  • My Christmas Cognac this year will be a bottle of Hennessy XO, which is utterly delicious and really quite sippable. It would be its big brother, the Hennessy Paradis, but that is a real rarity of exceptional quality weighing in at around £1,000. So, instead I’ll settle for the XO, a rich and rounded Cognac from the category’s biggest producer, which never fails to delight. But one can dream…
  • The whisky that will be served across the festive season for me is Tamdhu 18 Year Old. A Speyside single malt that carries all the quality of whisky matured only in former sherry barrels, the unctuous and nutty notes are accompanied by layers of Christmas cake and spice, making it the perfect dram for this time of year.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.