Tis the season and it’s the reason for this ramble rather than a rant or a rave; however, I will stay on course and discourse about holiday spirits since it’s my raison d’être.The holidays, as atheists prefer to refer to it, Christmas for the Christians, Chanukah for the Jews, and Kwanzaa celebrated by African-Americans have different meanings and traditions, but they all share in their love of the spirit and spirits of the season. Since I am a devout practicing Black Polish-Red, White and Blue-IrishCatholic-Jewish-Druid Atheist, the holidays are even more meaningful for me. It means it’s time to imbibe in all the glorious drinks that all these wonderful divergent ethnicities, cultures, and religions have gifted to us over the centuries.
Prepare to unhinge your jaw and stretch your epiglottis and roll some wonderful new words around in your mouth as we explore the etymology of holiday libations. The spirits of the season purportedly originated with Hippocras not to be confused with Hippocrates, the famous first physician. It was also known as Ypocras, Hypocras, Ipocras and Ippocras that eventually evolved over the centuries and in other countries into Gluhwein known as Glug, Glogg, Nog, Grog, which evolved into one of my personal favorites, the ever popular Nog n’ Grog that became a bit more civilized as it morphed into eggnog. And of course let’s not forget Negus, Eierpunsch, Rompope, Advocaat, Coquito, Auld Man’s Milk, Kogel Mogel, Sack Posset, Fig Sue,Syllabub, Vin Chaud, and the closer to home Mulled Wine and Waes Haeil orWassail – what the hell. Now, if you think for an instant that I made up any of those words, guess again because even though I am good, I ain’t that good. Just jump on the Internet and go to your Funk & Wagnalls website and check it out for yourself. Better yet, to enjoy your new found historical knowledge down three Wassails in rapid succession and then recite this list of drinks, if you can!! Ho, Ho, Ho!!
The true beauty of these seasonal splendors is that they can be produced using virtually any spirit and proportions that suit your fancy and palate. Traditional Grog can be made with a strong hot tea mixed with sugar and your choice of rum or brandy or anything else that sets your soul free. You can ignite the rum or not; you can add carmel if you choose or a touch of lemon or orange. Personally, I prefer Brandy with a splash of hot tea but you may prefer hot tea with a splash of Brandy. Whatever!
A long time ago in a land far, far away, actually England a few centuries ago, the drink of the season was The Bishop, a hot punch made of wine, oranges and sugar. Then along came Wassail, which in Germanic countries, was a contraction of the Middle English phrase wæs hæil, “be healthy”. It’s a hot, spiced punch also associated with Yuletide. Historically, it began as a mulled ale made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. Over time that evolved into your choice of a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, and again, as you please, with brandy or sherry added along with any available fruit such as apples or oranges. Gluehwein is a slightly different variation that adds cloves, sugar and oranges.
Apple brandy hot toddies have been around since Adam discovered apples back in the Garden of Eden and tried to get Eve drunk and we all know how that turned out. Just boil water, add some honey and stir until it dissolves and pour lemon juice and apple brandy into a mug and add a cinnamon stick for more flavor.
Popular during the early 20th century, Brandy Alexander is a gin-based cocktail. It’s a mixture of brandy, dark creme de cacao and heavy cream shaken and stirred with fresh mint leaves.
Eggnog by the very nature of its name should at the very least have some egg in it but the rest is limitless. Normally a mixture of milk, cream, sugar, cinnamon and beaten eggs, it can be accompanied by your choice of whiskey or brandy or rum, or if you’re truly into the spirit of the season all three, which could have the effect of turning it into a Long Island Eggnog. You might notice I said brandy rather than cognac. For goodness sake, don’t take a rare old cognac and bring any of this other stuff near it unless you’re shamelessly rich or shamefully stupid.
Hot buttered Rum, as indicated by its name, actually requires that you use rum (dark preferably but light will do) and butter, sugar and cloves in hot water.
Of course there’s the usual fruit of the vine that accompanies most meals now as throughout the rest of the year. However, there is only one wine that appears during the holidays and it must be drunk during the holidays as it goes bad in January. It is really the only wine I ever drink with Thanksgiving turkey and fixings, Beaujolais Nouveau. Those of you who disagree with me about this wine, and I know there are quite a few of you cognoscenti out there, can simply remove the stuffing from the bird and stuff it somewhere else. It’s crisp, it’s clear, it’s clean and young and spirited and is traditionally born on the third Thursday of each November after only a few weeks of fermentation and is meant to be consumed immediately if not sooner.
In keeping with the Christian spirit of Christmas, we must acknowledge the season’s premier sommelier, Jesus Christ who went beyond simply recommending wine and actually turned water into wine at a wedding party when they ran out:
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.[b]
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Man I would have loved to have tasted that wine, why I bet it was heavenly and probably even divine!!
Champagne, sparkling wine, bubbly, call it what you will, it is the top toast of the season. You can of course use it in your favorite holiday mixtures in place of other more mundane ingredients but again save the good stuff for drinking by itself from a flute.
With so many wonderful drinks, there is just not enough time during the holidays to do each justice, so I extend the spirit of the spirits through January and February since those two months have nothing going for them except short dark days and long cold nights.
Food pairings are very important to complete the seasonal setting. It is now that I turn to my favorite chef ever, the Galloping Gourmet. Virtually anything he prepared will go incredibly well with wine and spirits as evidenced by him always consuming at least two bottles of something or another during his cooking shows.
Oh, by the way, if you’re like me and the spirits of days past come to haunt and torment your present day then turn to the traditional Japanese ghostbuster, Tamagosake a mixture of egg, sugar and sake drunk to cure hangovers.
Have a way very merry, Ho Ho Ho.
By George Brozowski
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