Bar Review: The Shake Shack of Christmas Bars

With 95 locations worldwide, the Christmas-themed craft cocktail pop-ups, Miracle on 9th Street and Sippin’ Santa, have become holiday juggernauts. But are they all created equal?

When Miracle on 9th Street, the annual holiday pop-up bar in the East Village, first opened in 2013, it really did seem like a kind of miracle. Greg Boehm, a cocktail book and barware entrepreneur, and French bartender Nico de Soto, were planning to open a new cocktail bar called Mace, but they had run into delays. Rather than let the space lie fallow, they tricked it out in Christmas decorations, devised a host of cheeky, yuletide-themed cocktails and opened the world’s first Christmas craft-cocktail pop-up bar.

Its doors swung open the day after Thanksgiving to reliable lines that stretched down the block—a phenomenon not seen in New York cocktail circles since the opening of PDT and Death & Co., in 2007, and not seen again until Broken Shaker arrived this past summer.

Today, Christmas miracles are a lot easier to come by. Boehm, who now owns several Manhattan bars, including Existing Conditions and Katana Kitten, extended the concept in 2015 with Sippin’ Santa, a tiki-ish pop-up that took over Boilermaker, another East Village bar he owns. The next year, he franchised the Miracle and Sippin’ concepts, designating bars in other cities as Miracle material.

This year, there are more locations than balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (95 total!), including satellites in Mexico City and New Zealand, and four in New York City alone. If Mace and Existing Conditions are Boehm’s Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, the Miracles are his Shake Shack.

Are they all created equal? To find out, I visited five of them this season, and the answer is: Pretty much, which can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good, in that the quality of the drinks holds up from bar to bar. The bedrock of the Miracle bars are de Soto’s and Joann Spiegel’s recipes, which are inventive, witty and surprising. The Christmopolitan, a cranberry-forward spoof on the Cosmo, is clean and crisp, with refreshing hints of absinthe and rosemary (its garnish). The Jingle Balls Nog, anchored by Cognac and PX Sherry, is slippery and lush, a velveteen brown-butter balm. These are not just good Christmas cocktails; they’re good cocktails. The same is true of the Jeff Berry and Brad Smith cocktails on the menu at Sippin’ Santa, which, their being tiki drinks notwithstanding, are more straightforward affairs.

That the drinks can be accurately replicated far from home was proven by a visit to the Miracle on Centre, which is located on an anonymous suburban block in Nutley, New Jersey. (During the rest of the year, it is Cowan’s Public.) Their Gingerbread Flip—a solid introduction to the flip form, with its spicy snap of gingerbread, bite of bourbon and hint of bitters—is as good as it is at Mace. Likewise, the Bad Santa I had at Miracle on 2nd Street in Milwaukee (usually the gin bar The Tin Widow) was the same mind-melting, hot-rum Zombie I remember. (Cocktail prices vary by location. They were $16 in Manhattan; $15 in Brooklyn; $12-$13 in Nutley; and $12 in Milwaukee. The Sippin’ cocktails at Boilermaker were $14.)

Inside the Miracle Pop-Up

The flip side of this consistency is that you can see that the Miracle formula is a formula. Miracle and Sippin’ franchises are required to run a certain number of cocktails from the original locations; shake them up in Miracle bar tools, including eye-catching red shakers; and serve them in the same custom Cocktail Kingdom glasses and mugs. Granted, few people beyond roving bar critics are going to go to more than one location, so each Miracle will remain unique in the eyes of locals. But you only need to go to two to realize your baby isn’t that special.

The best formula for enjoying your local Miracle or Sippin’ may be to sample a bit of the core menu, while keeping a lookout for what makes the bar personal. This is where the proprietors will have invested a little extra pride and energy. (You may not see each bar’s unique drinks on the printed menu, so ask the bartender.) At Miracle in Brooklyn, which goes in for kitschy cultural references more than others, there’s an Anti-Frosé, which is essentially mulled rosé wine, and an Elf-inspired World’s Best Cup of Coffee. It’s just a cup of joe with a shot of whiskey poured in, but it’s still grin-inducing.

Appropriately, Boilermaker has seasonal boilermakers like the Cousin Eddie (Brooklyn Lager and Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple) and the Hans Gruber (Revolution Brewing’s Fistmas ale and Wild Turkey 101 bourbon). Meanwhile, the Nutley bar, quite on-trend, has four original Christmas mocktails, including the Resting Grinch Face (apple cider, spiced cranberry, orange and lime juice). The Milwaukee Miracle didn’t have any original cocktails, but their house Old-Fashioned, made with a cola-red wine reduction, tasted like Christmas to me.

Mace, too, has things you won’t find at the other bars. The new Gin-gle All the Way is a Mace drink all the way. The ingredients include gin, whey, pine, mint, patchouli, cream soda and, of course, pandan, Mace’s mascot herb. Served Collins style, it tastes like a fascinatingly odd Christmas cookie recipe from the old country, with each flavor getting its moment.

The single biggest change in the tone of the joints is the merch. The Cocktail Kingdom mugs and glasses are clever and cute and no doubt the bars have lost many to theft. Now, you can buy them on-site, which is convenient, but it also makes the bars feel a little bit like holiday gift shops that happen to dispense cocktails. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Cocktail Kingdom on an Old-Fashioned glasses set.)

But, such grousing is perhaps disingenuous on my part. As any yuletide junkie knows (and I count myself one), Christmas and commercialization go hand in hand and have for more than a century. There’s no reason why holiday pop-up bars should be any different. Yes, Miracle is no longer a singular loopy lark, a bright stab of impromptu cheer in the December night. The bars are everywhere and the magic is now mainstream. But, like the holiday itself, they are what you make of them.

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