Wherever you are in the world, it’s likely that the months that start and end the year are dedicated to feasting and entertaining. But, from the culture to the climate to the varying ingredients associated with this time of year, there are many reasons why festive celebrations take so many different forms.
For a frosty winter in Japan, rather than the Western world’s marzipan-coated fruit cake to provide warming fare, you’ll be more likely to find patisseries packing a sweet, creamy strawberry sponge. In Macedonia, meanwhile, the Christmas feast happens on 7 January, and there’s no meat allowed, while Americans enjoy a turkey feast at both Thanksgiving and Christmas (with the resulting sandwiches presumably lasting well into spring). Just as festive food is different depending on where you are in the world, it’s the same story for drinks, with a huge variety of occasions – from the big office Christmas party to a cosy gathering with friends around the brunch table – to factor into the mix.
That’s not to say that there’s not a bit of overlap going on. Eggnog, the opinion-dividing festive standard of Europe and the USA, is said to be derived from a type of posset drunk by English monks as far back as the 13th century. This, in turn, has influenced winter cocktails around the world – a Puerto Rican variation called coquito is made with coconut milk, while in Japan you can whip up a tamagozake (‘egg sake’).
As well as history and tradition, much of the regional variation in wintery drinks is, of course, to do with climate – you wouldn’t turn up to a Christmas Day barbecue on Bondi Beach with a steaming urn of mulled wine. At the opposite end of the thermometer in Stockholm, where World Class bartender Johan Evers runs food-focused cocktail bar Penny & Bill, temperatures hover around the freezing mark throughout December, so it’s not surprising to find that Sweden’s festive drink of choice is a warm one.
‘You’ll find a drink called glögg at just about every Christmas market in Stockholm,’ he says. ‘Glögg’ comes from the word ‘ember’ and, much like mulled wine, involves heating red wine with spices, such as cinnamon and cloves to create a warm mix. ‘But in Sweden we like to add brandy, along with some raisins and blanched almonds’. Glögg, charmingly, was originally intended to keep messengers and postmen warm when they were travelling through the Scandinavian winter on horseback.
[Photo by: By Fredrik Rollman]
Of course, the ubiquity of drinks such as glögg in the wintery months means it’s easy to feel fatigue for warming, spicy
flavours by the time spring rolls around. Johan counters this by serving a light, zingy and refreshing punch for festive celebrations – the perfect treat for guests who’ve likely been sipping drinks that have been mulled to within an inch of their lives over the preceding six weeks.
‘It’s nice to have something that cleans your palate,’ he says. ‘I use a Scotch whisky, dry sherry, some green apples and lemon balm, which creates a tickling sensation on your tongue. My mum loves Champagne, and, since it’s Christmas, it has to be topped off with that. It’s light and cleansing, a nice contrast to all the fats and heavy flavours that are on the Swedish dinner table at Christmas.’
Meanwhile, in Mexico, spice and warmth remain at the forefront of festive drinking. ‘Christmas in Mexico is very different from Christmas back home in France,’ explains Mica Rousseau, the World Class bartender who mans the shakers at Fifty Mils in Mexico City. ‘Mexico in winter is all about spicy, woody, earthy, fruity flavours. At Fifty Mils we do a drink called Hot Primavera, which is served in a traditional clay pot that actually adds a mineral flavour to the drink.’ The cocktail itself is a mix of Don Julio Reposado tequila, chilli liqueur, vanilla syrup, a blended chamomile and rooibos tea and avocado leaf bitters, with a slice of caramelised guava. He also uses hot river stones, adding them individually to warm the drink slowly – the things we do for the perfect recipe!
Another Mexican option, Ponche Navideño (literally ‘Christmas punch’) is made by simmering apples and oranges in sugary hibiscus tea, then adding Christmassy spices. It’s typically made without alcohol so can cater to a large Christmas crowd, and a Tequila such as Don Julio, or a dark rum like Zacapa 23 can be added to each person’s serving. Inclusivity is the theme of the season, after all, and guests will appreciate being able to choose their own flavour.
Different though the world’s approach to Christmas drinks may be, then, they’re united by an emphasis on sharing. With this in mind, how about a bit of cross-cultural fusion? Mica’s clearly into the idea – he’s developed a festive drink that takes inspiration from traditional festive flavours both European and Central American – a Mexican take on Irish coffee. ‘There’s not actually any coffee involved,’ he says. ‘The base is Oaxacan chocolate, with cinnamon, almond, vanilla and nutmeg. This is blended into rooibos tea, and topped with Johnnie Walker Wine Cask Blend and cream.’ Use a slow-cooker to prepare a batch of this decadent digestif in advance – it’ll fill your home or bar with the smell of festive spice and means you can spend more time with your guests. ’Tis the season, after all.