The reasons the Nui Nui, a Donn Beach classic, makes for a Christmas hit are obvious: It’s got cinnamon, spice and everything nice, and all the world wants this time of year is vanilla-flavored everything, not to mention peak citrus season starts in December. The 1930s recipe delivers, then adds a hearty dose of rum into the equation. But for me, it’s emotional because I went and got old. Don’t worry, it won’t happen to you unless you are lucky. Nowadays I get wistful and introspective in the winter, thinking of comfort, old friends and adventures past—the Nui Nui serves up all of that.
When I make a Nui Nui, I think about the bitters that stain my favorite tie, the scar on my right hand from a broken bottle of allspice liqueur and the annual case of mixed exotic syrups I purchase—which inevitably end up used mostly for children’s mocktails. Or how I can never forget that as a toddler, when hitting kids was going out of style, my preschool would feed us a teaspoon of vanilla extract as punishment. This twisted anecdote is also a foundational memory, responsible for my tendency to add a little vanilla atop the drink for aroma rather than rely solely on the syrup for flavor.
When I shake up a Nui Nui with deafening clacking, I like to wonder if I could hear my good pastry chef friend lecturing me on the difference between cassia and Ceylon cinnamon. Because a well-made Nui Nui is not an appetizing color, I’ll reach for a tiki mug, selecting one from almost 15 years of thrift-store finds my wife has acquired. (Her secret: Look in the vase section.) I then strain the drink over freshly crushed ice, smashed with a mallet my dad gave me to carve wood and scoop ice from the Lewis bag my extremely supportive mother sewed for me. When you are a sentimental fool, every cocktail can be a slow-motion montage.