Holiday Flavors for Warm Winters

How to capture the essence of a toddy, and other classic winter drinks, when it’s just too schvitzy to drink one.

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All photos by Maggie Rosenberg.

Sleigh ride songs and visions of fluffy white snow are part of holiday expectations. For those of us that live in Southern latitudes, the holiday season actually means more comfortable weather. December brings little more than a slight evening chill. Still, we don that gaudy sweater, simmer a pot of gluhewein, and pretend that there is a chance that it might reach below 60 degrees.

We love seasonal drinks and holiday rituals, but we also like to be comfortable and celebrate our place in the California sun. With this spirit in mind, we’ve considered some holiday drink choices that capture winter flavors without overwhelming our mellow atmosphere. Say goodbye to warming alcohol, thick textures and the hot mugs that we associate with holiday beverages, and try some refreshing holiday choices.

Beer

Most classic European Christmas Ales are dark winter warmers with aromas of baking spices and elevated alcohol. A cold beer is always a nice choice for mild weather, but for a sunnier approach, we recommend holiday beers with Bavarian inspiration over heavy Belgian and English styles. German winters call for strong lagers, like doppelbock, but milder winters would be more suited towards the weizenbock—a strong wheat beer. While it’s still stronger than normal Bavarian beers, weizenbock offers the banana-clove flavors of a sunny hefeweizen with winter intensity. They may be dark, as in the Schneider Aventinus, or golden and cloudy, as in the Weihenstephaner Vitus, but either way, they make a lighter, festive beer choice.

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Hops profiles can offer seasonal variations in beer. Some offer grassy, fruity or floral character, and some with more wintertime flavors of pine, juniper, and citrus. The most wintery smelling hops of all are the piney Simcoe and Chinook hops, both favorites of West Coast craft brewers. Chinook hops are particularly brash, usually used for bittering rather than flavoring beer. One of the original beers to feature them is the provocatively named Arrogant Bastard Ale from Stone Brewing. It pours a lovely holiday red and offers balanced malt to subdue the aggressive hops. Simcoe is a more restrained pine-forward hop that is balanced enough to carry an IPA. Simcoe hops star in the piney Revision Brewing Company’s Revision IPA, a silver medal winner in the 2018 New York International Beer Competition. This is a classic American IPA with dangerous drinkability and fruitcake aromas.

Wine

Holidays are some of the rare occasions when we might tuck into our cellars and open up some special bottles. Some might revisit their annual love affair with ice wine or passito. Snowbirds can celebrate with a more refreshing holiday favorite: sparkling wine. Bubbles are a holiday classic the world over, but in warmer settings we need not shell out for the (albeit delicious) warming aromas of brioche-scented vintage Champagne.

Some of our favorite holiday bubbles for beachside yuletide are from the Rhineland. Many riesling-based German Sekt offer a fresher, fruitier alternative to Champagne with the same zesty acidity, chalky minerality and elegant, lengthy finish that you’d expect from a seasonal splurge. Nougaty Cremant d'Alsace sparkling wines might be an easier find. These sparkling wines are made in the Champagne method and taste luxurious, but are usually less oaky and expensive.

Semillon may not be as well known as its blending partner in White Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s one of the world’s noble grapes. The holiday dessert classic, Sauternes, is based on the grape. Warm weather might not inspire a thirst for stickies, so why not enjoy a dry Semillon? The grape’s expression as a dry wine is resinous and herbal in the core with a citrusy aroma. As Semillon ages, it develops more earth tones and becomes muted in its fruit. While aged, dry White Bordeaux is a luxurious holiday choice, a younger fresher Semillon makes a welcoming aperitif. For a wine that captures both the fresh fruit of youthful Semillon and some hints at the wild, waxy brilliance of cellared White Bordeaux, look to Semillon's home in the New World: Australia.

Semillon in the Hunter Valley style makes a particularly thoughtful holiday party toast. These are wines with a characteristic of refreshing low-alcohol and bright acidity, but that still develop over the course of several years in the cellar. McGuigan 2017 Shortlist Semillon, (the 2014 won Double Gold at the 2018 New York International Wine Competition, is a classic example of this dynamic of fresh, bright wine with enough texture to stand up to rich holiday hors-d'oeuvres, like blue cheese stuffed olives.

Cocktails

Instead of hot toddies, go with an iced American classic: The mint julep. The yule log flavor of charred oak mixed with fresh mint makes a great chilled cocktail for sunny Decembers. One need not wait for the Kentucky Derby to enjoy this refreshing, but rich combination.

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The flavor that reminds us most of California and Florida winters is that of a ripe orange. Zesting up your cocktails for the holidays can be as simple as keeping a bottle of orange bitters around for your favorite classic cocktail applications. We love to utilize fresh winter orange juice when we can. It’s great when combined with winter’s other favorite fruit—the pomegranate. Gussy up your Tequila Sunrises! Skip the mediocre version made with a carton of OJ and artificially flavored grenadine, and use fresh squeezed orange juice and homemade grenadine syrup. It’s easier than it sounds. All you need is pomegranate juice and sugar. To really make this a special cocktail use fresh pomegranate kernels and candied orange peel to garnish and upgrade plain old navel orange juice to the juice from Satsuma mandarins, our favorite winter citrus.  For those who find the standard Tequila Sunrise too sweet, the original version of the cocktail, invented at the Biltmore in scorching Phoenix, has no OJ, instead making use of another classic winter flavor: cassis. The original cocktail mixes tequila with creme de cassis, club soda, and fresh lime juice. This version has much more summery flavors, but it can be made seasonally appropriate with a few modifications. Substitute the creme de cassis for Chambord and use a blend of fresh tart tangerine and lime juices rather than just lime. For another twist in your Tequila Sunrise, try Volcan De Mi Tierra Blanco, a Gold Medal winner at the 2018 New York Spirits Competition this year. A tribute to the Volcan de Tequila for which the Tequila region is named, this blanco has fruity aromas and lingering spice notes, allowing it to express itself and stand up to slightly sweet cocktail mixers. (For some other great warm flavored cocktail recipes served cold, please click here.)

Holiday gatherings may result in uncomfortable conversations, but there is no point in having your beverage of choice make things even hotter under the collar. Even if you aren’t spending the season somewhere sunny, holiday drinks that are cooler and lighter are refreshing in front of the fireplace. They might transport you from stressful hosting duties to more carefree times and places. Cheers!