Spirits of the holidays: Local cocktails brighten the season

PEPPERMINT SCHTICK: MG Road bartender Jesse Ratliff plays with holiday flavors in this easy-to-make, gin-based holiday punch. Photo by Jonathan Ammons

Traditionally, everyone has a beverage in their hand to raise high when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. The standard libation is Champagne, and in a town like Asheville, I am sure folks will be spilling local beer as they lean in for their kiss. But this year, why not welcome the new year with some new spirits? Xpress asked two local bartenders to offer some fresh tipples for end-of-the-year toasts, and I offer one of my own.

This year, instead of just popping the cork or cap on an old vanguard libation, surprise your guests with something different. Most of these ingredients are available at your local grocers and ABC stores. The Fernet Branca is sometimes hard to find, but it’s often stocked at the Charlotte Street and Merrimon Avenue ABC stores.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For both Cynthia Turner’s Holiday Punch and What Are You Doing for New Year’s Eve, you will need to plan ahead. For the Holiday Punch, the five-spice dram has to be aged for four days before preparing the cocktail. For the other drink, the cinnamon syrup needs to steep for several hours before serving.

Jesse Ratliff (MG Road):
Peppermint Milk Punch

“It’s supersimple,” says Jesse Ratliff, who’s shaking up a spirited holiday beverage at MG Road. “Spirit, sugar and milk, shaken and served up in a tall glass, maybe even some fresh nutmeg on top.” After all, he says, “Tis the season, so why not have some fun with holiday flavors? Most of us can’t get by without a candy cane or two.”

2 ounces Beefeater 24 Gin
10 drops peppermint extract
½ ounce simple syrup (1:1 ratio)
6 ounces milk (or half-and-half for richer flavor)
Enough ice to overfill the glass

To make:
1) Add ingredients to blender and blend until smooth.
2) Float ¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters on top.
3) Serve in a tall Collins glass.

Cynthia Turner (Imperial Life):
Holiday Punch

I stopped in on a very busy Tiki Tuesday night at Imperial Life to catch up with Cynthia Turner, who made me a delightful riff on a Champagne cocktail. What better way to watch the ball drop than with some fizzy bubbles tickling your nose? Her cocktail is a complex combination of bittersweet Aperol, the richness of a custom-made spice dram and lemon. Not to mention how great and rare it is to see bourbon in a Champagne drink.

1 ounce bourbon
¼ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce Aperol
¼ ounce five-spice dram (*see recipe below)
prosecco to taste

To make:
1) Fill a cocktail shaker with ice completely so as not to overdilute the beverage.
2) Shake the ingredients.
3) Strain into a Champagne glass and top with a nice, dry prosecco.
4) Garnish with a cranberry and a lemon twist.

*Five-spice dram:
1 cup of rum
3 cinnamon sticks
3 slices of ginger
8 cloves
15 allspice berries
½ grated piece of nutmeg
2 cups sugar
1 cup water

To make:
1) Soak the ingredients in a Mason jar for four days, then strain.
2) Combine sugar and water and add to the mixture.

Jonathan Ammons:
What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

And finally, there’s my old favorite from my days as a bartender. I named one of my favorite holiday drinks after the Frank Loesser tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Since the song is technically a Christmas song, and seeing as it is about the new year, I made a bit of a twist on a classic eggnog with a local apple brandy. The mint in the Fernet Branca makes for a bitter, yet refreshingly wintery flavor.

1 ½ ounce Carriage House Apple Brandy
½ ounce Fernet-Branca
½ ounce cinnamon syrup (*see recipe below)
1 egg white

To make:
1) Fill a cocktail shaker to the brim with ice, add ingredients and shake like crazy.
2) Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with nutmeg shavings.

*Cinnamon syrup:
4 broken cinnamon sticks
1 cup Demerara sugar (raw cane sugar)
1 cup boiling water

To make:
1) Combine all ingredients in a Mason jar.
2) Stir until sugar is dissolved.
3) Allow the cinnamon to steep for several hours.


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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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One thought on “Spirits of the holidays: Local cocktails brighten the season

  1. cktlking

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks for writing the article about cocktails. I make cocktails too and I have lots of really good ones. These are good too., except for one thing. I made the Cynthia Turner Holiday Punch like you wrote and put all the ingredients in the shaker and shook them. I didn’t see that you don’t add the prosecco until later. The shaker shook up and blasted all over my kitchen. Is this normal.

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