Toasting Santa's Devil


The winter holiday season is replete with traditions old and new, religious and secular. Most of my festive observations revolve around two things: ancient Pagan rites and drinking. Luckily, those two things often go hand in hand, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the universe has conspired to put my two favorite holidays back to back. Repeal Day, celebrating the end of Prohibition in the United States, is December 5th. The next night, December 6th, is something we who enjoy celebrating the Old Ways know as Krampusnacht. It is a quiet, reserved holiday dedicated to Krampus, one of Santa Claus’ most beloved sidekicks, and commemorated mostly by Alpine Europeans dressing up as demons, getting drunk, and rampaging through the snowy streets armed with birch switched they use to mercilessly thrash equally drunken bystanders.

If you’ve never been exposed to the versions of Santa Claus before Macy’s got ahold of him, you really should have a quick read about his origins. Throughout Europe (where Santa tends to visit earlier in December, around the 5th or 6th), the Santa Claus of legend is a very different man than the jolly, fat chap we know in the United States. In some of the oldest legends, Santa is the god Odin, and he celebrates the winter season by delivering gifts and leading the Wild Hunt. Later, we get guys like Sinterklaas, who plies well-behaved Dutch children with gifts while his sidekick, Zwarte Piet, deals with the bad little boys and girls -- usually by bundling them up in a sack, beating them, and taking them away to work as slaves in Spanish salt mines or something.

In Germany, Santa travels with a different sidekick, Knecht Ruprecht, who will arrive ahead of Santa and demand children sing and dance for him. If the child performs well, it is considered a sign of good behavior, and Santa will show up to give them sweets. If, however, they are poor performers, Knecht Ruprecht will throw them in a sack, spirit them away to the Black Forest, and either drown them in a river or eat them. Or he will just bash them with a sack full of ash. France has Pere Fouettard, yet another Santa sidekick, this one a former child murderer fond of lashing children with a whip.

But none of Santa’s many sidekicks (all of whom were at one time part of American Santa culture, but have since been edited out of Christmas celebrations for some reason) have achieved quite the cult popularity as Krampus, the devilish, tongue-waggling goat-man popular throughout the German, Italian, and especially Austrian Alps. Krampus (who like every other Santa sidekick, spends most of his time whipping or drowning children) has been embraced by a growing number of Americans who are throwing their own Krampus festivals. But even the most out-of-control of American Krampusnacht celebrations pale in comparison to the drunken, debauched madness of Krampusnacht in Austria, where the biggest celebrations take place and often end up with the snowy streets strewn with unconscious, bloodied drunks in nightmarish and ornate devil costumes. And you thought SantaCon was a hassle...

As Krampusnacht is a festival that demands the consumption of alcohol, and as Krampus himself is an increasingly familiar cult hero, one would expect a number of Krampus-themed libations to be on the market. Surprisingly however, Krampus-themed booze is rarer than one might think. Owning the market are two seasonal beers: Krampus Imperial Helles Lager from New York’s Southern Tier Brewing Company, and Krampus, a Belgian strong Pale Ale from Italy’s Birrificio Del Ducato. Although not common, both can be found in the United States.

While beer is the most fitting drink for celebrating a goblin from Bavaria, it wouldn’t be a holiday for me without a Krampus-themed cocktail on the side. There are a few out there, but none of them capture the spirit quite like the Krampus concocted by bartender Vince Favella at New York’s Ward III. A frothy combination of Bourbon, Laphroaig Scotch, egg white, cinnamon, Cynar, and Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur (from the Alps, like Krampus), it’s a delightful but demonic mix of bitter, smoky, and sweet -  capped by snow.

The Krampus cocktail at Ward III
The Krampus cocktail at Ward III
  • Few Rosemary Leaves
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Peychaud's Bitters
  • 1.5 oz. Heaven Hill Gold Label Bourbon
  • .5 oz. Zirbenz Pine Liqueur
  • .25 oz. Cynar
  • .75 oz. Lemon juice
  • .25 Simple syrup (1:1)
  • 14 drops peppercorn tincture
  • .25 oz Laphroaig Scotch, plus 4 spritz
  • 1 egg white
  • Grated Cinnamon

Method: Muddle rosemary with a couple of dashes of each bitter. Dry shake all ingredients except cinnamon and Laphroaig spritz. Then shake with ice until well-chilled and frothy. Double-strain into chilled coupe. Spritz with Laphroiag. Add 5 drops of Angostura over froth and use a toothpick to connect them into a star pattern, or just swirl. Finish with grated cinnamon.

While I don’t know that a proper Krampusnacht will ever be embraced in the United States, we can at least forego the blood and pain and skip right to the drinking, Both Krampus beers get into the spirit of the festival, though the edge goes to Southern Tier. Christmas beers can sometimes be a bit much for me, like drinking a wreath, but Krampus balances the sweetness and spice with a darker, brooding nature and a bitter hoppiness that is perfect for a long winter night spent fortifying your home against the encroachment of murderous elves.

Gruß vom Krampus!