What we often enjoy most about this season are the traditions it brings. My aunt and uncle bring homemade egg noodles to drape over Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, and I still keep a watchful eye on the fireplace for stockings at my parents’ house around Christmas (an institution I can’t seem to let go of, even at 29).
If there’s one tradition that remains generally consistent across the board, it’s enjoying a special beverage — eggnog, mulled wine and those pumpkin beers that sit in your fridge for months before you finally concede to not drinking them…
If you’re ready to augment your holiday drink repertoire, try your hand at some of the most traditional international wintertime libations. I’ve concocted and tasted six and encourage you to have a swig of somebody else’s holiday tradition — who knows, it might just become one of your own.
If you’re like me, bundled up for an icy Steel City winter while praying we’re spared another polar vortex, a beach chair is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But for a taste of the holidays on the beach, sorrel punch is Jamaica’s trademark beverage of choice. This Caribbean cocktail is served across the island and throughout the West Indies in late December.
The main ingredient, sorrel, comes from an annual plant called roselle. Sorrel is made up of its crimson flowers that are harvested and dried, and are most popularly featured in teas, jams, cakes, and in this case, refreshing holiday punches. Adding to its popularity are the many believed medicinal qualities sorrel brings to the table: alleviates flu/common cold, lowers blood pressure, controls inflammation and even combats a hangover.
Here’s where I get to save you the embarrassment I endured of calling around markets and stores requesting “sorrel” for a holiday cocktail. Sorrel is mostly known in the states as a leafy, spinach-like herb used in salads and cooking. What you should actually look for is dried hibiscus (sorrel in Jamaica). The utterly confused responses I received over the phone all became somewhat justified as I pieced that together. We’ll just call it sorrel, but keep all that in mind; I was one Google search away from driving 45 minutes to a farm to pick up the absolute wrong ingredient.
Sorrel is the undeniable star of the punch. Its dark-red coloring and hint of cranberry flavor give it a particularly festive look and taste. Served over ice, it’s refreshing with a bite of spice from the steeping of clove and ginger, with just the right amount of sweetness. A generous serving of rum is ever present, but tastefully infused.
Beach or no beach, this is an absolute must try over your holiday. If you have a bunch of people coming over and want to impress them with your knowledge of multinational holiday beverages, fire this up — it will not disappoint.
Sorrel Rum Punch
(makes about 8 servings)
• 1½ tbsp chopped fresh ginger • 5 cloves • 2 oz. dried sorrel (i.e. hibiscus) • 5¾ cups water (5 cups for drink, ¾ for simple syrup) • ¾ cup sugar • 1½ cups rum • ice • orange and/or lime slices to garnish
In a ceramic bowl (or bowl you can pour boiling water into), combine the ginger, cloves and sorrel. Bring 5 cups water to a boil, and slowly pour it into the bowl with ingredients. Let the contents sit anywhere between 2 hours to overnight. While mix is steeping, on the side combine ¾ cup water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Once steeped, strain sorrel bowl contents into a pitcher and discard the strained ingredients. Stir in syrup, rum, and lots of ice; garnish with orange or lime slices.
Cola de Mono
It translates roughly as “tail of the monkey,” so how can you go wrong? Cola de Mono is a Chilean Christmas staple, with a history that’s difficult to decipher. So we’ll go with the most entertaining theory.
Pedro Montt, elected president of Chile in 1906, was attending a party when he discovered that his Colt revolver was missing. The host concocted a mix of milk, rum, coffee and spices to calm everyone’s nerves, and the drink was a hit. Originally “Colt de Montt,” its name evolved to incorporate the president’s affectionate nickname — El Mono, or “The Monkey.”
Cola de Mono was, by far, the most enjoyable to create. Thirty minutes of simmering water with cloves and cinnamon sticks gave my apartment the fragrance of what the inside of a gingerbread house might smell like (so make it the day guests are arriving).
Spices meld into the milk to steal the show, and the white rum gives it a little pop on the finish. It’s the perfect marriage of a White Russian-esque cocktail and wintery flavors, and the coffee gives a certain deepness to the overall taste while accentuating the other ingredients. It’s delicious, and I regretted my halving the recipe the moment I tasted it. This is an easygoing, silky drink you can pour almost any night of the week. Make a batch and see for yourself — it won’t go to waste.
Cola de Mono
(makes about 6 servings)
• 10 cloves • 3 sticks cinnamon • 1 cup water • 6 cups milk • 2½ tbsp instant coffee • ½ cup sugar • 1 tbsp vanilla extract • ¾ to 1 cup aguardiente or clear rum
Lightly simmer 1 cup of water on stove with cinnamon sticks and cloves for about 30 minutes until about half of the water is left. Add in 1 cup of milk and instant coffee. Stir and bring to simmer, then slowly dissolve in sugar. Strain mixture and discard solids. Add additional milk, vanilla and alcohol — then refrigerate.
While the other drinks here are geared for making in batches, this one is a bit more of a solo mission.
Tamagozake (known as sake-nog outside Japan), is one of the most traditional Japanese concoctions, thought to be a cure for the common cold. Its creaminess and color gives it a look reminiscent of cake batter, and it’s good as a warm sipper on a frigid winter night. You’ll need: sake (Japanese rice wine) and tamago (Japanese for egg). Throw it all in a saucepan over low heat, whisk, and add honey or sugar to taste. I was a bit skeptical. The prospect of simply mixing an egg into hot sake and attempting to disguise that awkward blend of flavors with honey seemed… foreign, and I feared that after one taste, I could never recommend it.
Surprisingly, the result was much more pleasant. Tamagozake is essentially a five-minute eggnog without the song-and-dance. The sweetness hits the palate a split second before the distinctness of the egg, with the sake serving as an escort to keep either from overpowering the other. It’s very rich, smooth, and frankly would feel rather spectacular on a sore throat. Next time you come home from work thinking you may have finally contracted whatever your sneezing coworker has been dishing out all day, give this a shot — you never know.
(makes 1 serving, or 2 smaller servings)
1 egg • ¾ cup sake • 1 tbsp honey or sugar
In a saucepan, combine egg and sake, mix well, and set over low heat. Stir occasionally until mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes). Turn off heat and let sit for a minute. Add honey to taste, and pour into a mug or a few shot glasses.
This Puerto Rican spin on your standard eggnog is traditionally served from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s and blends a coconut flavor with your traditional winter spices. It’s served cold. Translated as “little coconut,” a coquito offers very little historical reference — no pistol-wielding president. However, it’s been suggested that the most logical explanation comes from the American influence once the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in the late 19th century. We came, we conquered, we brought eggnog.
Other nearby nations have adopted their own variations. My tip of the hat goes to the Cubans for serving theirs with ice cream. The coquito I wound up with was very rich, aromatic, and refreshingly not as sweet as I expected. Coconut and rum give it that light tropical touch, while winter spices reel it back in for that holiday feel. A dash of cinnamon on top is a nice addition, and the medley of scents as you raise your glass is simultaneously refreshing and festive. I definitely recommend this change-of-pace eggnog for a family fireside gathering Christmas Eve while waiting for Santa and/or that second portion of mashed potatoes to digest.
(makes about 6 servings)
• 2 egg yolks, beaten • one 12-oz. can evaporated milk • one 12– or 14-oz. can cream of coconut • 1½ cup of coconut milk (or whole milk) • ½ cup clear rum to taste • ½ cup water • ¼ tsp ground clove • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Over a simmering water double boiler, combine beaten yolks and evaporated milk, and whisk. Watch mixture until it begins to thicken, making sure not to overcook (egg would begin to solidify). Once thickened, transfer mix into a blender and combine remaining ingredients. Blend for 20 – 30 seconds. Refrigerate, serve with a nice garnish of additional ground cinnamon or nutmeg, and enjoy. Note: we used cream of coconut in this recipe, but other variations also encourage incorporating fresh coconut as well.
Salep pours in Turkish homes and also is ladled by street vendors during the country’s winter holidays. A warm, fragrant nonalcoholic beverage, it goes back to the Ottoman Empire. The drink’s name is its main ingredient; salep powder is made from a species of wild orchid native to certain parts of Turkey, and is featured in this popular drink as well as desserts.
Its ingredients are minimal: Milk, honey or sugar, and salep. Other versions include rose-water or vanilla to bolster the flavor, and chopped pistachios as a garnish. In terms of taste and consistency, the most common comparison I’ve seen is that of a chai tea and a smooth hot chocolate.
There’s a reason I had to look up those qualities and not taste for myself: the particular orchid used in this Turkish holiday pillar has become endangered and banned from export because of a steep decline from overharvesting. Instead, variations of the drink outside of Turkey use glutinous rice flour to serve as the thickener. Though I’m sure the genuine experience of an authentic cup of salep poured by a vendor on the wintry streets of Istanbul is different, I decided to give the poor man’s version a try.
And while it’s nice and creamy, warm and comforting, it’s unlikely that I’ll spring out of bed tomorrow to make my next cup of salep. But as it only takes five minutes to make, I will store it in the back of my head for one of those days that require a thorough thawing out after 45 minutes of shoveling snow. For those of you planning travel to Turkey, give this a try and report back!
Salep (Poor Man’s Version)
(makes about 2 servings)
• 2 tbsp glutinous rice flour • 4 tsp sugar • 2 cups whole milk • ground cinnamon
In a saucepan, mix milk and rice flour (or salep if you can get your hands on it). Bring to simmer over medium heat. When mixture begins to thicken, add sugar (this will help thicken it more, so resist the temptation to add more flour). Pour into teacups and garnish with a few dashes of ground cinnamon.
Traditionally, this concoction is a hot mulled cider, but a quick recipe search will produce as many variations as you can find ingredients. Some use beer, some wine, others bourbon, brandy, sherry… but the common denominator will always include apples. A “wassail bowl” is also common, holding up to 10 gallons and sporting handles so attendees can drink straight from it.
The name wassail was originally adapted from the English greeting “waes hael,” meaning “good health,” and it’s traditionally consumed in large gatherings on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night (either January 5th or 6th, depending on tradition). After a night of drinking, the patrons would go “wassailing” — caroling — to the tune of many traditional songs, including: Love and joy come to you /and to you your wassail too /and God bless you and send you /a happy New Year.
I wassailed to myself while cutting up the ginger and apples in order to spare my neighbors, though they may not be so lucky come late December, given how delicious the outcome was. Wassail — at least this Regent Square rendition — was the perfect wind-down after a sleet-filled Steelers Sunday afternoon. Cinnamon, apples, vanilla, ginger, lemon, bourbon… all of the drink’s components just seemed to meet together for one unique, soothing experience. It’s as easy to make as it is to drink: find your ingredients, simmer them in cider or another liquid of your choice, and serve right out of the pot. A warm drink made of warm ingredients — the perfect answer to that relentless winter wind howling outside the window.
(makes about 6 servings)
• 6 cups apple cider • 1 cup orange juice • 4 cinnamon sticks • 1 tbsp sugar • ¼ tsp allspice • 1 lemon • 1 cup bourbon (or to taste) • apple slices
Cut lemon into slices. Combine ingredients minus the bourbon into a pot or a deep pan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 – 60 minutes. Add bourbon before serving hot. Add apple slices as garnish.