The holiday cocktail party usually lights the season, marking the end of the year and brightening wintry nights with good cheer.
Now that we're at home, the line between work and fun can feel tenuous, so these holiday traditions can be key in defining those boundaries. This season, for lots of reasons — general health, waistline, sleeplessness — I'm seeking a few low-octane options to keep my virtual gatherings light.
In my search for zero-proof cocktails, I came across plenty of interesting yet overly complicated recipes — aka chemistry experiments — created by professional mixologists that are well beyond my reach. There was also plenty of information about the benefits of tea (green and herbal) and kombucha. These make fine adult beverages but are the drinks I sip at my desk to get me through the day.
I didn't want to go the route of "virgins" or "mocktails," the very terms seem demeaning and defanged. So, I focused on adult drinks made with bold flavors that stand up on their own, unadulterated or overshadowed by booze and that are not overly citrusy or sweet. Happily, our grocery stores and co-ops are stocked with local artisan bitters, shrubs, vinegars and verjus that give nonalcoholic drinks that necessary puckery boost.
Take the Twisted Shrub's Pineapple Habañero shrub, Sharab Shrubs' Apple Rosemary shrub and Bittercube's Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters, to name a few. For a quick cocktail, simply mix any of these with sparkling water, tonic or one of the not-too-sweet "dry sodas."
Or, make one of these easy recipes, proof that a no-proof cocktail can be a very spirited drink.
Hot Mulled Cider
Note: This versatile winter elixir is a perfect blend of cinnamon, clove, anise and black pepper that shines on its own. It lifts you up while keeping you warm, perfect by the fire, inside or outside. From Beth Dooley.
• 3 c. fresh apple cider
• 2 sticks cinnamon, plus 2 more for garnish
• 3 whole cloves
• 2 whole star anise
• 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Pour the cider into a saucepan and add 2 cinnamon sticks, cloves, anise and vinegar. Set the saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, simmer until the flavors come together, about 2 minutes. Pour the cider through a strainer into two cups and discard the spices. Serve each cup garnished with a cinnamon stick.
Tart, bitter and bright, this vibrant elixir of cranberries and bitters packs a puckery punch. Top it off with fresh cranberries, which really do float. If you're looking for blood orange soda, Dry brand is a great choice: light, fizzy and not at all sweet. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 c. fresh (unsweetened) cranberry juice
• 3 c. dry blood orange soda or sparkling water (see Note)
• 1 to 2 drops bitters, or more to taste
• 1/4 c. fresh cranberries, for garnish
Divide the cranberry juice and soda between two glasses. Add a tiny drop of the bitters to each. Add ice cubes, then garnish with fresh cranberries.
Old Fashioned Eggnog
This recipe for the traditional holiday drink, which must be prepared in advance, gently cooks the eggs to kill any potential bacteria. It's so rich, it can double as a dessert. Store leftovers in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. From Beth Dooley.
• 3 large eggs
• 1 egg yolk
• 1/4 c. sugar
• Pinch salt
• 2 c. whole milk
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg, plus a little more for garnish
• 1/4 c. heavy cream
In a small, heavy saucepan, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, sugar and salt. Slowly whisk in the milk. Set the pan over the lowest heat and stir the mixture continuously until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and an instant-read thermometer reaches 160 degrees, about 20 to 30 minutes. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Stir in the vanilla and nutmeg. Pour the mixture into a container with a lid and refrigerate until fully chilled, about 4 hours. Before serving, pour the eggnog into a bowl and whisk in the heavy cream. Serve garnished with more grated nutmeg.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.