The countdown's on for Christmas and then a rockin' New Year's Eve. If you're working on a shopping list for the next few weeks of parties and dinners, here's a spin on the Christmas countdown that will provide plenty of variation on ye olde spiked eggnog. We've pulled together the best new holiday spirits, some wonderful wines, and a couple European classics. Cheers to your merrier Christmas and happiest-ever New Year.
House of Mandela Wines – Timely and Sustainable Even before Nelson Mandela's passing, the February 2013 US launch of his family members' eponymous winery grabbed attention. Of all the myriad wines coming from sunny South Africa, the Mandela label garners unparalleled respect for its fair trade policies and environmentally sensitive production. With Nelson Mandela's memory glowing in everyone' hearts right now, you couldn't pick a better host gift than a Mandela wine -- whether the entry level Thembu collection or the premium Royal Reserve.
Bärenjäger Honey & Pear – Drinkable fruitcake, only better Bärenjäger and fruitcake share many characteristics (fruity, honey-sweet, European), but only one's likely to be used as a paperweight after the holidays. The bottle of delicious golden liqueur with the cute bear mascot won't last that long. There are countless cocktail recipes using Bärenjäger, but honestly, you don't need to get fancy with the new Honey & Pear expression. Pour over ice and savor as a sweet aperitif.
Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach – The cognac that's also a fruit basket It might seem like more of a summer sipper, but House of Marnier Lapostolle released this berry peachy limited edition in September. And if Santa's granting wishes, we'd prefer a bottle of it ($39.99) over a real fruit basket of the season. It's a sophisticated after-dinner spirit that tastes like a summer morning.
Smoked Maple Knob Creek – "Comfort whisky" from the heartland Maple is the perfect complement to the oaky caramel flavor of bourbon, America's homeland whiskey-designate – and we love that Knob Creek, one of the ultimate Kentucky bourbon distillers, has released one with proper Kentucky cred. (For spirits intelligentsia who wonder how the rules work: Adding maple post-maturation allows this spirit to still qualify as a bourbon.) Rich and desserty -- perfect for chilly nights by the fire.
Classic Glühwein – In plain English, that means "mulled" Students, mixologists and Dickensian carolers ladle this stuff up gleefully during the holiday season. Here's a classic mulled wine recipe from New York's most Austrian fine-dining spot, Wallsé. (If the Austrian varietal Zweigelt is too hard to find, substitute a favorite bargain-bin red.) 1 bottle of Zweigelt wine 1 orange (sliced in half with rind) 1 whole vanilla bean Zest of 1 lime Splash of port wine Cinnamon stick Spices, 1 tsp of each: Juniper berries, all spice, star anise, pink peppercorns
Directions: Place all ingredients in large pot and simmer for 30 minutes. Before serving, add honey until desired sweetness is reached (approximately 5 Tbsp for whole pot)
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Mulled white wine – Finally, a toddy for white wine drinkers! Just like white sangria is the lighter and much less common cousin to red sangria, white mulled wine is the logical alternative to an intensely aromatic mug of mulled red. Only thing is, it's almost impossible to find -- but with this recipe by mixologist Jane Elkins, you can now make a delicious version at home.
Regal Glow 6 drops bourbon vanilla extract .5 oz cinnamon syrup .75 oz PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur 2 oz Dry Riesling 1 oz water Star anise pod, discarded orange zest
Directions: Mull over a low heat.
CADE Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – The dinner party red You can't talk politics or religion in polite company, but you can certainly argue over wine all night long…so present your guests with this excellent, elegant Howell Mountain Cabernet label by CADE (a newish, highly acclaimed label from the PlumpJack group) and kick-start a healthy debate about Old World vs. New... or perhaps, Mountain vs. Valley.
Archery Summit Pinot Gris – The dinner party white This inaugural vintage from a critics-choice Willamette Valley wine producer is another win for Oregon…and a win for white wine drinkers as well. It's under $22 a bottle, comes from a winery already known for great Pinot Noir, and will appeal to people who want something new but still familiar: It's lively, fruity, clean, and pairs excellently with Christmas fowl of any kind.
Fonseca Port, Bin 27 – Veddy, veddy British So traditional, so proper, and so sweet you'll feel it in your back teeth. You have to have a bottle of port on hand at the holidays, if only to appease the white-beards in the family tree. And the just-released 2011 vintage was a very good year – so much so that experts predict it'll sell out fast. If you're not a connoisseur, fall back on Bin 27, which is inexpensive, from one of the great old families, and available in a "half bottle" (375 ml).
Cruzan Velvet Cinn – The eggnog substitute Eggnog's position may be in jeopardy, and it's all thanks to horchata, a beverage that's been around for more than a thousand years. Only recently, product creators at a couple liquor companies, including Cruzan, had the idea of launching a "rum horchata" category. I.e. mixing the popular Latin American agua fresca (made variously from milk, nuts, seeds, vanilla, cinnamon and other ingredients depending on the country) with rum; and bottling it up as a ready-to-drink liqueur. Silly name aside, this new entry from Cruzan is surprisingly delicious, and quite a bit lighter than eggnog.
CIROC Roman Candle – New Year's Eve on the beach Everyone has That One Friend: While everyone else is freezing their bits off and slipping in snow puddles, That One is posting selfies from their Hawaii beach condo. This is the drink they'll be toasting with on New Year's, as you shiver through the local fireworks display. (And if you ARE that friend, congrats. Everyone is mad at you, and wants an invite to your condo.) ROMAN CANDLE 1 oz. CÎROC Red Berry .5 oz. Simple Syrup .5 oz. Lemon Juice 1 Strawberry Muddle fruit with Simple Syrup. Add remaining ingredients. Shake, strain, and serve in a flute, topped with 2 oz sparkling Rose wine. Garnish with a strawberry slice
PAMA – May your 2014 be fortuitous Chinese considered the pomegranate a symbol of fertility; in Jewish culture, it's auspicious for a fruitful new year; and in its native country of ancient Persia (now Iran), warriors who ate pomegranate gained invincibility. Plus, the color of PAMA, the new pomegranate liqueur from Heaven Hill Distilleries, is a beautiful red almost exactly the color of…poinsettias! All in all, it's a tasty, festive and hopefully luck-bringing 12th drink to round out this list and usher in a joyful New Year.