Holiday Cocktails

By Julie Johnson
Photos by Davies Photography

Holiday hospitality places a lot of demands on the host. This is true in your own home, and even more so when the host is a professional. This time of year, guests at bars and restaurants arrive with heightened expectations, looking for a festive touch that is both true to the season, but also as new and AS surprising as a present on Christmas morning.

 jeremy smith, head bartender at maximillians

jeremy smith, head bartender at maximillians

As they contemplate their winter cocktail menus, restaurant owners, bartenders and managers have to adjust to the changing seasonal preferences, while they also anticipate the larger number of guests and parties, at this time of year.
    Not surprisingly, customers’ tastes switch to richer flavors when the temperature drops. “Generally for the holidays, I think of drinks that involve brown liquor – scotch-heavy rather than bourbon-heavy, because the smokiness of scotch is really good for the cooler weather,” says Colin Crossman,
co-owner of The Mayton Inn (301 S. Academy Street, Cary). “I think the preference for brown over white spirits has to do with the depth of flavor.”
    There are also traditional flavors that evoke the feel of the season. “For a holiday theme, we like to think about the kind of flavors our customers are liking – hot mulled drinks, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, things of that nature,” says Amber Meacham, general manager at Little Hen in Apex (5160 Sunset Lake Road).
    She also notes the challenge of keeping the cocktail recipes consistent with the restaurant’s farm-to-table theme, with its emphasis on seasonal fare. “Produce is scant in the winter and we have to think creatively about how we can incorporate local ingredients into our cocktails,” she says. “Using preserves is one way: last year, Hannah [Alkadi, Little Hen’s bartender] made fig preserves that went into the cocktails, and we occasionally use dried fruit.”
    At Maximillians Grill (8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary), Margie Hennessey, who with her husband Will bought the restaurant in January, sees the focus on what is local and fresh as part of the restaurant’s 25-year history. “As much as we can serve local – alcohol, food – that’s what we do,” she says. “We treat the bar just as we treat the kitchen: what’s in season, what’s coming up. We use all fresh juices, we make our own simple syrups. I got these beautiful apples from the North Carolina mountains that inspired me. We start thinking about apples and whiskey and bitters and clove simple syrups.”
    For cocktails, she’s a fan of the line of bitters from Crude Bitters and Sodas in Raleigh. Its founder, Craig Rudewicz, was the original bartender at Little Hen, creating bitters on the side before opening his beverage shop in 2012. His bitters are now available in many Triangle retail outlets.
    The special ingredient for Crossman’s hot buttered rum is the compound butter, which must be made in advance: “You cannot do it on the fly,” he warns. Quantities can also be tricky. “The first time we made it, I made a very tiny batch just to experiment. My wife liked it so much that she suggested that we start with four pounds of butter. When you’re done, you end up with eight pounds of stuff. We ended up using the butter on pancakes and French toast for quite some time. It actually worked extremely well.”
    Crossman suggests that one person can serve the drink to a large crowd by pre-mixing the hot water and rum to the right proportions (about 3:1) in a sealed serving pot. “You can put the dollop of butter in the mug and add the liquid.”
    For home entertaining, Hennessey sticks to the classics. “Every home, I believe, should have a bar to make a basic Manhattan, a basic Martini, a basic Margarita. Everybody needs a good tequila, vodka, gin, whiskey, and a few nice cordials in their home. I’m a big fan of the cocktail party – with Uber, everybody should be having cocktail parties again!”
    Meacham finds that the same principles that guide menu design at Little Hen and its new catering company, Patria, apply to home cocktails as well. “Try to use products you have available to you. That’s how Hannah and I start. We think what would go together, what’s the mood, what the situation? Is it a party, do you want to be more festive, do you want it fancier, or is it more like a cookout, where you can do a punch or something easier for a crowd? Think through the situation and see what you have available. You can’t go wrong.”



Margie Hennessey of Maximillians Grill
8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary

Jeremy Smith is my head bartender, and has been slinging cocktails in Raleigh since the mid 90s. He and I work closely on what ingredients and alcohols we carry: the bar is treated to as high a standard as my kitchen!

1 ½ oz TOPO Gin
½ oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
¾ oz rosemary clove syrup (see recipe below)
1 ½ oz pear purée (see recipe below)

Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake; pour over rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a fresh rosemary sprig.
Rosemary-Clove Syrup Ingredients & Directions

1 cup water
1 cup white sugar
¼ cup rosemary
5 cloves

Combine water, sugar, rosemary and cloves in a small saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and let syrup steep about 30 minutes. Pour syrup into glass jar through a mesh strainer to remove rosemary leaves and cloves. Let cool.

Pear Purée Directions
Poach pears in water until soft and blend in blender or food processor until smooth.


Hot Buttered Rum

Colin Crossman of The Mayton Inn
301 S. Academy Street, Cary

"This drink is very tasty, but it is not ‘diet’ in any way. It’s a sipper, perfect for sitting outside by the fire at night. I serve it at holiday parties where people are walking around, but remember: they are basically walking around with melted butter and if they spill it, you’ll have to deal with it."

Place ½ to 1 Tbsp compound butter (see below)
in an 8-ounce mug. Adjust to taste depending on
how sweet you like it. It’s possible to go w-a-a-y
overboard. Add 2 oz Muddy River Distillery Spiced
Carolina Rum to the mug. Fill with hot water
just off the boil, so it completely melts the butter.
Stir to incorporate.

Be careful, this stays hot: the melted butter traps
the heat and creates a bit of an oil slick on the surface.

Compound Butter

1 stick of butter
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup dark agave nectar
    (could substitute another sweet syrup,
    maple would be interesting)
½ tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
⅛ tsp nutmeg
⅛ tsp allspice
⅛ tsp clove
(last 3 adjust to taste)

Bring butter to room temperature; mix in ingredients, pack into ramekins, and chill before use.


R & R Fizz

Amber Meacham of The Little Hen
5160 Sunset Lake Road, Apex

"R & R for Ruby Red and Rosemary, or Rest and Relaxation. The bitters are from Raleigh, the gin from Durham, and the rosemary from my mother’s backyard."

2 oz Durham Distillery Conniption American Dry Gin
1 oz Ruby Red grapefruit juice
2 droppers of Crude “Rizzo” Bitters
½ oz honey simple syrup (equal parts honey and water)
sprig of rosemary
Ruby Red grapefruit wedge

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice; shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with rosemary and grapefruit wedge.