A Busy Bar’s Guide to Complicated Holiday Drinks

A cocktail in a punch bowl behind a sign that says "Making Christmas."
Often the secret to making holiday cocktails for the masses is to batch them ahead of time. (Photo: Golubovy via iStock)

Holiday cocktails often call for delicate ingredients and labor-intensive techniques. But whipping, frothing and boiling a cup of cheer on the spot isn't possible when you're deep in the weeds. So what's a bartender to do during this season of bigger crowds and complicated drinks? In a word: Batch.

At Arnaud's French 75 in New Orleans guests can enjoy a Tom & Jerry without the wait, thanks to some careful planning on the part of bartender Chris Hannah.

"We have to make the Tom & Jerry batter each day before service, separating eggs and beating them with sugar and cream," says Hannah. "Beating the whites into a sort of meringue takes a bit of time. But once everything is put back together the batter sits in the cooler and waits for a Tom & Jerry to be ordered."

It's important to balance anticipated guest volume and demand for holiday cocktails with the bar's space, equipment and staff capabilities. Smaller bars may want to stick with one holiday drink that's easily batched, while volume can make it possible for larger bars to feature several "high-maintenance" specialty cocktails.

"A bar has to know its size when deciding to make certain drinks," says Hannah. "For instance, we're too small to do punch bowls and to have a Crock-Pot behind the bar in order to do mulled wine. A bar should try and offer only what allows for each guest to get served in a timely manner."

Some holiday cocktails have a longer shelf life than others, giving bartenders more wiggle room. "Planning out the batching of these holiday cocktails is difficult because the typical ingredients are quickly perishable, such as eggs and milk," says Bob Begandy, bar manager for Tack Room and Punch House in Chicago. "However, a drink like milk punch, if properly made, is quite shelf stable. Charles Dickens himself had a batch in his cellar. After his death it was auctioned off and was said to be delicious."

Holiday tradition is, of course, up for interpretation. Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington DC offers several of its own twists on holiday standards — including Egg Grog 2.0, an eggnog-inspired meringue served in a moose-head glass.

"A great holiday cocktail has a story your team can get behind as well as some holiday flair," says head bartender Torrence Swain. "Pick a cocktail that will maintain its quality and keep notice of how the product performs in specified time periods."

But there's more to keeping quality holiday cocktails flowing than planning out ingredients and quantities. Speed of service and the little details matter any time of year.

"Making a good drink while keeping service fast is an important part of our job. I think the crucial moment is being mindful, keeping focus and choosing not to panic or stress out in these situations," says Danilo "Dacha" Bozovic, partner and bar manager at Employees Only Miami and creator of Swizzle Bar at Washington Park Hotel in Miami Beach. "Be mindful of everything from the temperature of the glass to the state of ice and the state of your juices."

Whether it's an old-fashioned eggnog or a new invention, careful planning is the first step in creating a memorable holiday experience that guests will want to re-live year after year.

Marcia Simmons is a freelance writer and the author of "DIY Cocktails." She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and would really like a Pimm's Cup right about now.

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