To me, holiday meals are there to conjure nostalgia. The same desire for familiarity governs the tipples I want to prelude holiday meals, that stretch when the smells permeating the house incite increasingly ominous stomach growls.
This is not the time for some newfangled drink — not for a room of people who are gritting their teeth, trying to be on their best behavior and silently mouthing to themselves, “Remember, she’s family; remember, she’s family,” possibly in reference to you. Instead, have mercy, and provide a chance to sip their own bittersweet bolt of booze.
The Old-Fashioned is about as close as you can get to one of the earliest-known definitions of the cocktail itself: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters,” according to a New York state newspaper in 1806.
Over its early years, depending on who was making it, the Old-Fashioned was complicated with other ingredients like maraschino, orgeat and soda water. For a while it was topped with fruit. The modern drinkmakers who brought it back have leaned on its more elegant, unadorned form, even while developing riffs of their own.
An Old-Fashioned bar with all the bitters and garniture and sweeteners at hand will accomplish a number of goals: It allows guests to make their own drinks with pleasure, so you can focus on making sure your cousin’s attempt to deep-fry a turkey doesn’t create a fiery avian projectile, or sneak away from your family to the tender embrace of your phone. The drink provides a means of bonding, as guests can play with ingredients and taste each other’s concoctions. Your little bar space provides a place where guests can walk away from awkward conversations.
Setting up your bar
Here are the necessities.
Bar space: If you don’t have a good, sturdy bar cart, create a tabletop space to allow guests to do minimal prep work. You may want a sign to guide them, explaining the standard recipe is 2 ounces of spirit, a little sugar, a few dashes of bitters and ice.
Glassware and tools: You’ll need rocks glasses and a bar spoon for stirring. A muddler is useful too, to mash up the bitters and sugar (and the fruit, if guests opt to do so). You can go with another early tool: Small spoons, just taller than the rim of the glasses, which guests can use to stir.
Spirits: You’ll want at least three or four bottles of good, sippable spirits: at least a bourbon, a rye and a brandy. They don’t have to be the most expensive, but you don’t want junk. While they’re not traditional, an aged rum, a dry gin and even agave spirits can make an appearance.
Sweeteners: The classic is defined by the muddling of bitters into sugar. There are plenty of other options: Different kinds of sugar, agave nectar, honey syrup (1:1 honey and hot water, which helps honey dissolve in a cold drink). Sugar cubes already dosed with bitters and other flavorings. Flavored syrups: Ginger, cinnamon or a chai tea variation that brings in spices and a tannic bitterness. Or try liqueurs or a PX sherry.
Bitters: Angostura bitters are a must. You can vary the menu with orange, the anise-y Peychaud’s, or other bitters with darker or spicy flavors — think black walnut, cardamom or chocolate.
Garnishes: You’ll want whole lemons and oranges that guests can peel, orange slices, brandied cherries and maybe ripe pineapple.
Ice: You don’t need more than fresh, clean cubes, but if you plan ahead, you can prep some big, clear cubes that will be slower to melt and fit perfectly into a standard rocks glass. Several companies make clear ice molds for a regular freezer.