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Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth oldfashioned cocktail

Crafting the Perfect Holiday Cocktail for Special Events

Top hotels share their secrets to creating craft cocktails for the winter holidays

Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth old fashioned cocktail
Whether it comes out of a tap or a bottle, small-batch and hand-crafted hooch is setting the standard for boozy beverages.

“Unless you're at the local dive, cheap wells are virtually nonexistent now. No more Seagrams gin and whiskey in the well,” says Vincent Anter, bartender at Fig bistro, located in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. “We're using moderately small-batch in our well, such as American Harvest organic vodka, Chinaco Blanco tequila--which is really good stuff--Damrak gin, Matusalem rum and Old Overholt rye. It's stuff people haven't really heard of, and we like it that way. It gives us a chance to engage with the customer and explain what we're pouring.” 

Marc Antoine Gagnon, bar manager at Montreal’s Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, agrees. “By far, small-batch, artisanal alcohol products are gaining more popularity. They provide a history behind their conception, and they have a certain sacred side by their limited quantities.” As for a specific type of hooch, Gagnon claims that gin is still holding strong—but it’s not your grandmother’s Tanqueray. “Recently, gins are making headway by changing their appearance and taste to charm a younger clientele, especially women,” he says. “They are far from the old fashioned ‘London dry gin’ style and are more appealing with the infusion of citruses, teas and herbs.” [Pictured above, an old fashioned from Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth.]

As far as craft beers go, a good microbrew IPA [India pale ale]—ideally, local to the area for the story-telling factor—is what’s on tap. “Everyone tells me sour beers are around the corner, but I've heard that for years now,” Anter says. “What we are seeing in the IPAs are infusions and collaborations, such as watermelon or grapefruit IPA, and IPA aged in Jameson casks or sherry barrels.”

Gagnon adds gluten-free beers to the bar menu. “People are concerned about gluten consumption, and gluten-free beers are in higher demand," he says. "People appreciate that their gluten intolerance is taken seriously, and that these products are on the drink menu.”

Fresh and Seasonal

Fig fresh taste

Like food, cocktails are best served freshly made and with seasonal ingredients. “We aim to use only the freshest and highest quality ingredients in all that we do, and the seasonality of our food menus has to carry over into our cocktail program,” says Emily Kraus, operations manager for Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck Catering. “Incorporating fresh, seasonal produce and herbs is easy to do with cocktails. Whether that’s infusing liquor as the base of a cocktail, creating flavored syrup to sweeten it, or simply muddling herbs, fresh and made-to-order is the key.”

Gagnon adds, “The easiest way to incorporate fresh herbs into cocktails is in syrups. For instance, we’ve infused mint, basil, sage and lemon verbena, which we grow on our rooftop garden. But we also use our herbs directly in our cocktails, such as mint or basil for our mojitos.” 

The garden fresh factor naturally extends to the mixers. “Only fresh juices will do, as they allow more control over the flavor profile of a cocktail,” Kraus continues. “Consumers' palates are more sophisticated, we don’t have to mask flavors with overly sweet juices and mixers. The simplest example is a margarita: Make this with sweet and sour mix, and any discerning guest will send it back, switch it out for the right mix of fresh lemon and lime juices with agave syrup, and you’ve got a great cocktail.”

House-made candied garnishes—fruits, ginger, herbs—are another way to incorporate an infusion of flavor. “The best garnishes are those that make sense,” Kraus says. “Pull ingredients from the cocktail recipe to offer guests an ‘ingredient clue.’” [In photo, a fresh cocktail from Fig.]

Bitter and Sweet

Syrups from Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth

House-made and artisanal also apply to tonics and bitters. One thing that we been using recently is a locally made syrup-like tonic concentrate designed to be mixed with neutral sparkling water and gin,” Gagnon says. “Every time we explain to guests that our gin and tonic is made with a local gin and a local craft tonic, the customers get excited. Even though it is very simple, guests really do enjoy it."

“A trend that I personally enjoy is mixing different types of craft bitters into classic cocktails,” he continues. “For instance, you can do a simple old fashioned and adapt it your guest’s liking by changing the bitters. Instead of Angostura bitters, try cherry bark vanilla for get a totally different drink.” Bitters, he explains, are a creative way to adapt simple cocktails for each season and for each patron. “For example, in autumn, we use bitters such as bergamot, roasted pecan, honeyed apricot and smoked hickory that reflect the aromas of the season.” Anter adds Amaro into the bitter batch. “It's an herbal Italian digestive that is appearing on cocktail menus everywhere,” he says.  [In photo, a selection of syrups and bitters from Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth.]

Warm and Fuzzy

White Russian cocktails from Wolfgang Puck Catering

As the months get colder, drinks get warmer. “Seasonally, we are seeing the return of the hot toddy,” Kraus says. “Classically this is Scotch or blended whisky, hot water, honey and lemon, but variations on this are simple based on what your preferences are and what makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Try dark rum, mulled cider and baked apple bitters.”

Greg Hyder, director of catering and conference services at The Peninsula Chicago, knows a thing or two about hot beverages. “We have a beautiful ice skating rink on our outdoor terrace, so our mulled ciders and interesting twists on hot chocolate are very popular here in the Windy City.” A recent Elvis-themed event featured booze-infused hot chocolate--reposado tequila, white chocolate Godiva liqueur, and Kahlua--to keep guests warm and toasty. 

[In photo, White Russia cocktails from Wolfgang Puck Catering.]

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