It's beginning to look a lot like holiday cocktail season. All over the Twin Cities, tabletop drink menus adorned with Santas and snowmen swell with libations like Irish coffee, spiked hot chocolate and burly barleywines served up in goblets. Despite December's hustle and bustle, we still find the time to stop by our favorite winter watering holes to cap off a long day of Christmas shopping, or an even longer evening at a tragically booze-free office party. It's at the bar where we find friends, clink warm mugs and exchange ruddy cheek kisses before heading home.

Speaking of home, holiday cocktails there have risen above eggnog and the occasional cranberry sparkler. Sure, it's a respite, a place to decompress after suffering the pretense of extended family gatherings. But our kitchen cabinets bear more than scotch and peppermint schnapps these days, stocked with flavored syrups, colored glassware or, at the very least, a mixing tin and strainer.

This is the time of the year when twinkling colors are as much a requirement on the rim of your glass as they are on the glowing strands on your Christmas tree, when whiskey isn't mandated for a hot toddy, and tequila turns into an affair you'll actually remember. The holiday season is full of festive flavors and smells that professional and home bartenders are blending together in inventive, potable ways -- and bestowing them with appropriately punny names. Here are five cocktails to seek out this season that exemplify that spirit and ingenuity.

Mistletoe

Ask for the Mistletoe at La Belle Vie between Jan. 1 and the day before Thanksgiving, and you'll be you-know-what out of luck. Bartenders are under strict orders to only make this holiday cocktail between Black Friday and New Year's Eve, which just adds to its irresistible allure. You might fall in love at first bubbly sip, or succumb slowly to each of the Mistletoe's fruit and floral layers. Either way, this tart effervescent drink -- bubbles courtesy of bar manager Johnny Michaels' signature cava splash -- will get you.

Wait until the very end to slurp up the fresh pomegranate seeds (if patience is one of your virtues), or let them pop in your mouth while you savor citrus and clementine vodkas, sweetened only with a touch of pomegranate syrup or an occasional lick of the red, white and green crystal sugar rim. If all that sounds a little too sensual for you, then consider yourself warned: The Mistletoe is a cocktail worthy of a kiss.

Recipe

Michaels says the Mistletoe "would have a very voluminous recipe" for the home bartender, so he created this simpler version.

  • 1 ½ oz. citrus vodka
  • ¾ oz. pomegranate juice
  • ¾ oz. defrosted lemonade concentrate (strained of pulp)
  • 2-3 drops orange blossom water
  • Ice
  • Cava (or any dry sparkling wine)
  • Shaker and strainer
  • Martini glass
  • Garnish: Equal parts red, white and green decorative sugar
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Orange twist

Directions: Rim half the martini glass with sugar. Combine all ingredients except cava. Shake and strain into glass. Top with cava. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds into drink and garnish rim with orange twist.

 

Chai Me

The makeup of the Chai Me is deceptively simple. Just five ingredients blended together in a warm, caramel-colored concoction that's light, creamy and easy to drink. But wait, is that a hint of cloves? Is that a touch of cardamom? Absolutely. No premade mixes here -- Om concocts its signature chai tea blend right in the restaurant's kitchen with fragrant Indian spices, strong black tea and a pinch of green tea leaves for brightness. Boiled instead of steeped to release every bit of essence, OM's chai is robust and complex. When combined with Jameson Irish Whiskey, Baileys Irish Cream and hot frothed milk, it becomes an entirely different after-dinner experience.

No ingredient is overly assertive here. The Baileys lends merely a touch of caramel sweetness, and even the whiskey is kept in check by soft vanilla spice notes and the comforting effects of warm milk. The Chai Me begs to be imbibed while curled up, fingers wrapped around the mug to guard it from others who get a whiff of the sweet spiciness and come nosing around for a sip.

Recipe

  • 1 oz. Baileys Irish Cream
  • ½ oz. Jameson Irish Whiskey
  • Hot chai tea
  • Frothed milk
  • Glass mug
  • Garnish: ground cinnamon

Directions: Combine Baileys and Jameson in mug. Fill mug three-quarters full with hot chai. Top with frothed milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon.

 

Figgy Pudding

"Now bring us some figgy pudding!" chants the second verse of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," the traditional English carol demanding baked treats in exchange for a song. Local carolers this season may very well be singing about the Strip Club's Figgy Pudding, a tasty bourbon take on the fruit-studded holiday cake.

Raw butternut squash could be the last thing you'd expect to find infused in alcohol, but when added to bourbon it lends an earthy mellowness that tempers the whiskey's signature bite. The final product is virtually indispensable, as is obvious in the potent but very potable Figgy Pudding. Splashes of Cynar (a bitter liqueur made mostly from artichokes) and Heering (a dark cherry liqueur) round out the bourbon's oakiness, while almond orgeat syrup and a muddled black mission fig balance out the booziness. The result is layered cocktail perfection -- first a pleasant bitterness, then the sweet fruit, then a delicate bourbon finish -- the likes of which we've come to expect from the Strip Club.

Recipe

  • 2 oz. butternut squash-infused rye or bourbon whiskey (see directions below)
  • Dried black mission fig
  • Splash of Cynar
  • Splash of Cherry Heering liqueur
  • Splash of orgeat syrup or honey
  • Ice
  • Muddler, shaker and strainer
  • Martini glass
  • Garnish: Pressed black mission fig coin

Directions: Muddle bourbon and fig together. Add remaining ingredients, shake and strain into martini glass. Garnish rim with pressed fig coin. To make butternut squash-infused rye or bourbon whiskey: Combine one 750-ml. bottle of rye or bourbon and one raw medium butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes, in large covered container. Infuse for one week, strain and store infusion in airtight bottle.

 

A Sweater on the Inside

A Sweater on the Inside fits the very definition of a holiday drink: a thick, eggy sipper with a little bit of nutmeg and a whole lot of alcohol. It also happens to live up to its name: warm and fuzzy going down, with a lingering heat that tingles your insides long after it's tickled your taste buds.

Azia bar manager Brad Smith adds a touch of vanilla and saffron to his house-made Tom and Jerry batter, then whips it up soft and fluffy. The spice pairing joins forces with the fruitiness of Maker's Mark bourbon to create a mild, easy-to-drink warmer with a pleasantly surprising end note of sweet mint. Just don't drink it too fast. Two full ounces of bourbon and a hefty splash of high-octane Rumple Minze (the 100-proof peppermint schnapps) create a killer cocktail.

Recipe

  • 2 oz. Maker's Mark bourbon
  • ½ oz. Rumple Minze
  • 2 tbsp. vanilla and saffron-infused Tom & Jerry batter
  • Hot water
  • Bar spoon
  • Glass mug
  • Garnish: Ground nutmeg

Directions: Combine first three ingredients in glass mug. Fill with hot water and stir to combine. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

 

Holiday in Guadalajara

Beyond the glitz of gourmet-infused spirits and bedazzled glass rims comes Clubhouse Jäger's Holiday in Guadalajara. This winter drink borders on proletariat with its pantry staple ingredients, but it's their uncommon combination that makes it memorable.

First off, there's the tequila. The liquor that conjures images of summer days and condensation dripping down salty margarita glasses is transformed in this tequila-orange hot toddy. Unexpectedly mellow, the El Tesoro just barely peeks through the citrus and spice, making it a palate-pleasing drink even for those of us -- yes, guilty as charged -- who scowl at the thought of downing a tequila shot. The aroma is like a Christmas potpourri, with orange and cinnamon wafting up from the mug with each belly-warming sip. The cinnamon stick will release its oils as it mingles in the heat, so the tail end of this drink is worth the wait. Agave nectar, a gentle natural sweetener from the same plant that gives us tequila, holds the Holiday in Guadalajara true to its south-of-the-border spirit. Feliz Navidad.

Recipe

  • 1 ½ oz. El Tesoro Reposado tequila
  • 1 tsp. blue agave nectar
  • 2-3 dashes orange bitters
  • Splash of orange juice
  • Hot water
  • Bar spoon
  • Glass mug
  • Garnish: cinnamon stick
  • Orange twist

Directions: Combine first four ingredients in glass mug. Fill with hot water and stir to combine. Drop cinnamon stick into glass and garnish rim with orange twist.