Bartenders share their favourite holiday cocktail ideas for 2023

Yuletide spins on classics and totally novel concoctions for a more festive cocktail hour.

Yuletide spins on classics and totally novel concoctions for a more festive cocktail hour

3 images of cocktails. Left to right: A dark brown cocktail in a martini glass on a table. A tall glass with a marshmallow snowman and a clear cocktail inside. A glass with a creamy brown cocktail in it sitting on a table.
(Source, left to right: Fairmont Royal York; Brenton Mowforth/@CheersToHappyHour; the Keefer Bar)

Certain occasions call for a nice, stiff drink; others call for a nice, stiff drink served in a sinister, smirking Grinch mug piled high with marshmallows. 

As the holidays approach, our collective appetite for kitsch seems to increase, as does our thirst for playful, sometimes over-the-top cocktails that nod to the season. But is a serious drink any less serious when it's poured into Santa's pants? Absolutely not, according to Canada's top bartenders. In fact, they say, the festive season calls for fun adaptations and a hint of quirk.

"Dust off the punch bowl, bring out the ceramic mugs your kids made in pottery class, or unbox those colourful martini glasses you decided not to regift. As long as what you're making in them is delicious and good quality, I say go for the kitschy serve," says Amber Bruce, bar manager and partner at the Keefer Bar in Vancouver. 

Kitsch is basically the business model for Christmas-themed cocktail bars that pop up around the country as the holidays approach. With maximalist decor and creative concoctions that taste as good as they look on the 'Gram, such bars bank on nostalgia.

Nick Kennedy, owner of Civil Liberties as well as Miracle Toronto, a Christmas-themed pop-up, says around the holidays we crave cocktails that are familiar but novel. "[They] remind us of our holiday traditions [with] flavours that transport us home."

Robin James Wynne, general manager and beverage director for Little Sister, Bar XXX and Bar Batavia in Toronto, also draws on nostalgia to influence his cocktail recipes and presentation. He says his inspiration has come from childhood memories, evenings by the fire, outdoor activities and family meals. "We serve one of our cocktails with a Christmas cracker and insist people wear the crowns that come inside them, just like at your house with family and friends," he explains.

In terms of flavours, the experts agree that bold, darker spirits like whiskey, dark rum and aged tequila tend to show up more as the cool weather sets in, often paired with baking spices for comforting appeal with a hint of indulgence. 

"Clove, cinnamon, orange peel, star anise and allspice definitely remind people of the holidays," says James Grant, director of mixology at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York hotel. "Nutmeg is a big one, too. Rich cocktails are also great for the holidays — think eggnog or hot buttered rum. For fruit flavour, I always skew more towards orchard fruits like apples and pears or red berries and currants."

When it comes to crafting your own holiday cocktails at home, there is also room for experimentation. "I don't think there is a rule to follow about how holiday cocktails should be made," says Wynne. "The blueprint is always a connection to the holiday [and] using classics as a base of reference is always a good place to start, then swapping out ingredients or changing base spirits."

Looking to host your own festive cocktail party? Experiment with these five fun yuletide spins on classic cocktail recipes.

A snowglobe gimlet

A tall glass with a marshmallow snowman and a clear cocktail inside.
(Photography by Brenton Mowforth/@cheerstohappyhour)

Few things are more magical than winter's first dusting of snow — it's no wonder we bottled this moment in a globular holiday tchotchke. Wynne then took this tchotchke and turned it into an iconic holiday cocktail.

"The snowglobe cocktail was a lesson in reverse-engineering a cocktail idea," he says. "We had to figure out how to keep the cocktail clear, have scenic garnish inside to mimic a snowglobe and then create the stir effect to mimic snow in the globe."

To replicate this idea at home, start by creating the winter scene: build your snowman using small marshmallows stacked on a toothpick, add cloves for arms and anchor the snowman and a sprig of rosemary into a large marshmallow. Then add a bit of water to the bottom of a highball glass, drop the marshmallow diorama into the glass and freeze. 

Wynne opts for a sour cocktail mixer instead of traditional lime to give the gimlet its distinctive tang. The drink is composed of two ounces of gin, half an ounce of St-Germain, one ounce of Supasawa and one ounce of simple syrup, followed by four ounces of raspberry- and strawberry-infused water. Wynne recommends letting the fruit steep in the water for no more than five to six hours to avoid the water turning red. "You could also substitute that with a brand of water called Fruit Drop," he says. Pour the final concoction overtop the frozen scene.

"Once the drink is poured into the glass, we added coconut flakes to mimic snow, and then you used your straw to stir up the flakes," he explains.

A DIY eggnog

A clear glass of egg nog sitting on a green marble counter.
(Source: Lindsay Jones)

Eggnog is practically synonymous with the holiday season, but Lindsay Jones, bar manager at the Ostrich Club in Halifax, eschews "the yellow store-bought stuff" in favour of a scratch-made version.

"It's super easy to make," she says. All you need is two ounces of whole milk, one egg yolk, three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup (preferably using demerara sugar), a pinch each of cinnamon and nutmeg, "and for those looking for a little kick, two ounces of the dark spirit of your choice." 

Jones says she likes to use a blend of bourbon, aged rum and brandy. "The result is a drink filled with texture — smooth and velvety with plenty of flavour and aromatics." Put all the ingredients in a tin or mason jar and shake hard, then garnish with a light grating of cinnamon and nutmeg. She recommends making one serving at a time to ensure the milk froths nicely and the flavours meld perfectly in each glass.

You can try making your 'nog with an alternative milk like oat or coconut, or take it up another notch with a cocktail smoker kit, which Wynne says are readily available and easy to use, and finish the drink with a hint of smoky drama.

A gin fizz meets retro potluck staple

2 hands holding up unicorn- and santa-shaped mugs in a restaurant with colourful Christmas lights in the background.
(Photography by Raluca Smith)

Grandma's Jello salad is finally inspiring more than mild stomach upset. This year, Kennedy drew upon the often-reviled combination of gelatin, sugar, carrots and cottage cheese to create something infinitely more appetizing.

His Marshmallows and Unicorns cocktail is a take on the traditional gin fizz. "It's bright and light, but the marshmallow really reminds me of my great-grandmother," he explains. "She would make this horrifying marshmallow and Jello salad, which I despised, but while she worked in the kitchen [she] would pawn off marshmallows and hot chocolate to the kids milling about the house. Hated the salad, loved the preparation."

To make the drink, Kennedy starts by batch-making cardamom and black pepper marshmallow syrup, which involves heating 16 grams of whole green cardamom and four grams of black pepper in a large pot until aromatic, then adding 500 ml of water and bringing to a simmer, melting in 540 grams of white sugar and 100 grams of store-bought marshmallow spread. As the syrup begins to cool, add in two grams of vanilla extract and one gram of salt.

Then, in a cocktail shaker, he combines one and a half ounces of gin, a half ounce of vanilla liqueur, a quarter ounce each of velvet falernum liqueur and cherry brandy, and one ounce of the marshmallow syrup, plus a squeeze of lemon juice, four drops of cinnamon-allspice bitters and the whites of one egg with ice. The drink is shaken, double strained, poured over ice and topped with two parts soda then served in a mug garnished with marshmallows and a maraschino cherry.

A chocolate-hazelnut espresso martini

A dark brown cocktail in a martini glass on a table.
(Source: Fairmont Royal York)

2022 was dubbed the "year of the espresso martini" so it's no surprise the caffeinated classic is still picking up steam and inspiring new iterations a year later.

Grant's favourite new holiday cocktail, dubbed the Espresso Rocher, reinvents this iconic cocktail and nods to a popular sweet Christmas stocking stuffer with hints of hazelnut and chocolate.  

"It's still got the nutty richness of our house espresso, but with a backbone of clean vodka and a hit of sweetness from hazelnut and cacao liqueurs," he says. 

To make it, he shakes together one and a quarter ounces of Frangelico with half an ounce each of vodka and crème de cacao, one ounce of espresso and a dash of chocolate bitters. The drink is then strained into a chilled glass and topped with gold flakes and a sprinkle of salt.

A festive flip

A glass with a creamy brown cocktail in it sitting on a table.
(Source: the Keefer Bar)

A different sort of sweet inspired one of Bruce's new holiday concoctions. Her Jian Dui Flip is a riff on chewy sesame buns, or jian dui, traditionally served at dim sum. 

"The holidays are time to indulge," she says. "Rich and luxurious textures are where it's at. Whether it's something creamy and luscious, or bold and silky. 

"We love the sesame balls that you get at dim sum. They're lightly crisp and coated with sesame seeds on the outside, and doughy and sweet on the inside. We've recreated the flavours of this delight in a creamy flip-style cocktail," she adds.

Traditionally, flip-style cocktails come together by combining two parts fortified wine or liqueur with half part simple syrup and a whole egg dry-shaken (without ice) and poured into a chilled glass.

Bruce's version combines one ounce of bourbon, half an ounce of Oloroso sherry, an ounce and a half of red bean and pandan soy milk, half an ounce of simple syrup, one egg yolk and four drops of sesame oil for a silky smooth and ultra-comforting sipper.


Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Instagram @thejenobrien.

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