One of the best things about the holidays is the surprise that comes with receiving a gift, all wrapped up and full of mystery. The holidays also bring with them the comfort of the familiar, of serving and being served good food and good drink. At office parties, Christmas Eve gatherings, and Hanukkah dinners, and right on through to New Year’s Day, most of us indulge in the delights of the table, the punch bowl, and the wine cellar.
This year, if you’re like me, you might want a new kind of cheer — something a little fresher than Uncle John’s Manhattan, which he’s been mixing since Iwo Jima, or a little jazzier than the hot toddy that Charles Dickens drank upon receiving his first royalty check for “A Christmas Carol.”
To that end, I’ve asked some of America’s greatest chefs, restaurateurs, and wine experts to suggest novel mixed drinks, little-known wines, new ways to use champagne — and just the right Kentucky bourbon. Purely out of a journalistic sense of responsibility to you, the demanding Fast Company reader, I have sampled everything that our crack corps of connoisseurs has recommended.
“Make me a New-Fashioned.” That’s the challenge that I put to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, 41, who was named the 1998 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef (the food world’s version of the Oscar for Best Actor) and whose Jean Georges restaurant won the foundation’s Best New Restaurant award this year. I have long been a devotee of the Old-Fashioned, which is made with rye whiskey or bourbon. The oranges and cherries in this classic cocktail seem as right for a Christmas drink as they are for a summer cooler.
Chef Vongerichten, who looks like a French George Clooney, is ready for the test. “Give me a week, and I’ll give you a new drink for the holidays,” he promises. It turns out, however, that instead of offering just one drink, he’s invented a handful of cocktails. Jean Georges’s sommelier, Kurt Eckert, 42, and I sample these festive drinks at the chef’s fledgling four-star restaurant.
Vongerichten’s New-Fashioned features crushed cranberries and sliced blood oranges — an innovative combination for a drink, though you might find it in a holiday fruitcake. The cranberries and the blood oranges both have a fruity yet bitter quality, which Vongerichten thinks goes well with hors d’oeuvres: The fruit prepares your tongue for the sweetness and the saltiness of most predinner finger food. Using ice cubes made with cranberry juice boosts the flavor even more.
A similar idea is at work in his Frozen Fire Champagne Cocktail, which uses ice cubes made with cranberry juice and Tabasco sauce to form an absolutely delicious complement to champagne mixed with a little sugar. On first taste, we think that the drink could use a touch more fruit and hot pepper — so Vongerichten tosses in ice cubes until the cocktail resembles a slimmed-down lava lamp.
Continuing in the champagne vein, Vongerichten prescribes a mixture of pureed pears, pear liqueur, black pepper, and champagne. The result, called the Peppered Pear Champagne Cocktail, is thick, sweet, and bubbly enough to be refreshing.
Dan Del Vecchio, 31, who returned this year from a tour of duty at Vong, Vongerichten’s French-Thai restaurant in London, prepares a Neo-Rum Punch with homemade tamarind water. The punch has the aromatic spiciness of eggnog and the tanginess of the fruit. A dusting of nutmeg tops the punch, delivering a spicy hit when you take that first sip.
Vongerichten also slips a final surprise drink under my tree: a Jerez Martini, mixed with a splash of Amontillado “Los Arcos” Lustau sherry. This is a grown-up drink — innocent of sugar.
All of these drinks spring from the fertile mind of a great culinary artist, but the principles that guide him can also guide you. After all, even the most two-fisted, scotch-on-the-rocks drinker should taste the fruits of savvy mixology at least once a year.
Peter Kaminsky (email@example.com), a frequent contributor to Fast Company, is writing a book with Chef Gray Kunz titled “The Elements of Taste” (forthcoming from Viking, late 1999).