The drill is familiar: Come the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas invades. Tinsel sprouts like weeds. Mariah Carey’s “Merry Christmas” miraculously sneaks back into the Spotify top lists. Everything is suddenly gilded, gift-wrapped and cinnamon-scented, earlier and earlier each year.
There is one area, though, where the over-the-top holiday treatment is actually welcome: cocktails.
Many of the drink components and flavors we associate with Christmas today are both deeply rooted in historical drinks—wassail, eggnog, toddies and any number of punches—and this season’s bounty: winter citrus, apples, pine, sweet spices and winter herbs.
Drawing from these traditions, the bar world has long riffed on seasonal classics on their menus each December. But some have gone even more hardcore with the “Something Christmassy” prompt. In particular, a trio of East Coast bars kitted out with everything from walls covered in wrapping paper (Mace) to tiki decor interwoven with tinsel and Christmas lights (Boilermaker) to a Hanukkah Hangout replete with hanging dreidels and a table sometimes used for Manischewitz pong (Mockingbird Hill), alongside fully themed menus.
The first pop-up appeared last year, at Mace in Manhattan’s East Village. As owner Greg Boehm tells Robert Simonson, “My nice Jewish mother was traveling in Tibet… She came up with the idea that we should not do construction in December. We should do a Christmas bar in December and do construction in January.”
The result was “Miracle on Ninth Street,” a month-long Christmas pop-up. In its second incarnation, head bartender Nico de Soto has again incorporated ingredients ranging from frankincense smoke to peppermint gin to Budweiser-marshmallow syrup, all in the name of distilling the essence of the holiday season into drink form. The Muletide, one of the easier-to-make drinks on the menu, does so with just a handful of ingredients: ginger, lime, sherry and aquavit.
And this year, Mace’s yuletide explosion has spread a few blocks south to another Boehm-owned bar, Boilermaker, which has been made over into tiki-holiday-themed bar called “Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shack.” With no shortage of kitsch, Boilermaker’s head bartender Sam Gauthier has created an epic mash-up of a menu that imbues cocktails new and old with both holiday and tropical flavors.
In the A Snowball’s Chance—Gauthier’s smokey, tropical riff on the Old-Fashioned—Scotch stands in for whiskey and pineapple gomme syrup for the sweetener, with a splash of absinthe for good measure. While his Rudolph’s Apple Sling—an apple brandy and maple syrup cocktail hit with a dose of St. George’s pine-y Terroir Gin—is the result of his quest “to create the sensory experience of sitting around the Christmas tree eating baked apple pie,” he explains.”You smell the pine and you taste apples, dark sweetness and warming spices… that we think of as both tropical and holiday.”
The trend has been transplanted to D.C., too, where Mockingbird Hill has been transitioned to “Miracle on Seventh Street.” From behind his bar—complete with fake snow, wallpaper-wrapped walls and a working model train—owner and head bartender Derek Brown knows what he would “totally make on the spot to express the Yuletide spirit”: a combination of rums and crème de menthe. The I Don’t Mind You Shooting Me, Frank, But Take It Easy on the Rum (the name a quote from holiday classic Scrooged, modified to stave off a Bacardi lawsuit) is meant to conjure candy canes and well-lubricated family gatherings, by way of the Daiquiri blueprint.
“‘Bartender’s choice’ often needs to appeal to a wide range of palates,” says Brown. “We could muck it up with bitters and perhaps use conifer tincture, as we’ve done in other drinks, but for me, ripping candy canes by the dozens off the Christmas tree is what Christmas is all about.”