The life of a bartender is rarely dull, but the work atmosphere gets especially active each holiday season.
This year’s Xpress Best of WNC bartender winners all have witty insights about what it’s like to work behind a bar this time of year, which cocktails put them in the holiday spirit and how readers can get in on the fun.
“People are extra emotionally charged during the holidays,” says Jennie Lou Nelson of The Odditorium. “A bartender has to really step up their role as counselor, shrink, legal adviser and babysitter.”
Add nutritionist to the list as well: A few years during SantaCon, there was a blizzard. “About 30 minutes before last call, a dozen Kris Kringles arrived, covered in snow,” Nelson says. “They ended up in a big puddle on the floor. We fed them cookies and milk and sent back them out in the blizzard on foot. I miss them. We talk about that a lot.”
Other cherished memories from holidays of yore at The Odd include hosting a Blind Pig Supper Club dinner with a Gremlins theme, and several Christmases in a row when Nelson threw her entire living room Christmas tree — decorations, lights and all — into the back of her car and took it to the bar for 12-hour solo shifts that left her “filthy rich and exhausted.”
Over at The Bier Garden, Jackson Zoeller looks forward to seeing longtime customers catching up with family and friends while he serves them drinks.
“It really is a great time to be in this business,” Zoeller says. “People are mostly happier, and I get to see old faces from almost 20 years ago that I maybe see every couple of years or so.”
And at Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, bartender Josh March and his colleagues “deck the halls with lights, wreaths and bows,” dressing in their finest holiday wear throughout December to help spread holiday cheer.
“We have all walks of life that come to sit at our bar, and by mid-meal — two drinks in — strangers have become best friends, buying each other drinks and dinner. The more reserved types start jovially yelling with the staff, ‘Welcome to Vinnie’s!’ every time a new person walks through our doors,” March says. “The older folks end up singing and dancing the night away as our music transforms them back to a simpler time. It’s really heartwarming to witness this vibe go down on a nightly basis, especially amplified by holiday celebrations. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.”
Keeping the clientele jovial are beverages that ramp up in popularity as outdoor temperatures plummet, including hot drinks that annually prove especially appealing at Nelson’s bar.
“We offer liquor-spiked hot cocoa with whipped cream and sprinkles; bourbon-loaded hot toddies that take forever to make because of a million magical little touches; hot mulled cider with blackstrap molasses rum; and cranberry Jello shots that are to die for,” she says. “We keep it whimsical at The Odditorium. You might find a plastic dinosaur, a bone, glitter or a pumpkin-shaped Peep on your beverage. We like to have fun.”
Also on the menu is coquito, a coconut-based alcoholic drink that business co-owner Tamy Kuper makes from scratch. “It is decadently delicious,” Nelson says. “It’s a Puerto Rican drink similar to eggnog.”
Meanwhile, Zoeller sees an uptick in sales for bourbons and the darker beers at The Bier Garden, and Vinnie’s cycles in punch-style cocktails.
“We run the Jingle Jangle, which is a light, boozy, holiday spiced punch that pairs nicely next to some of our more robust dishes,” March says. “It’s always a crowd pleaser.”
During the holidays, March also incorporates dry sparkling wines like Spanish cava and Italian prosecco in cocktails, which he feels work better than higher-end Champagnes this time of year. And he’s additionally a big fan of tiki drinks, especially ones that use the liqueur St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.
“It’s a Jamaican rum based with strong notes of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg,” he says. “I feel this is under most people’s radar and underrated as an addition in lots of holiday cocktails. A little goes a long way and is an excellent way to add a little layer of complexity and spice to your warm apple ciders, cardamom pear margaritas and even eggnogs.”
After returning to the homestead following a busy night working the bar in the winter, March usually makes himself an Old Fashioned — typically with a higher-proof bourbon, like Wild Turkey 101 or Old Forester 100 proof. “They tend to warm the soul a little more while sipping next to the Christmas tree,” he says.
Meanwhile, Zoeller’s annual tradition involves homemade eggnog — one with rum and another with bourbon. “It’s fun to make but takes a while. So, of course, I pop on some Elvis Christmas tunes,” he says. “I also find myself getting into the hot chocolate with my toddler, but I add Rumple Minze to mine. And I always look forward to my dad’s White Russians. He throws in a little of the leftover cold coffee from the morning.”
March likewise gets in on the homemade eggnog game, courtesy of one of Vinnie’s “superregular” customers who makes a small batch each year to share. He always feels lucky to receive a bottle of “Bob’s Nog” and treasures its keepsake bottle, complete with description of that year’s batch rolled and fashioned around the bottle’s neck.
“The true genius is what lies inside,” March says. “To say it’s the best eggnog I’ve ever enjoyed is an understatement. Layered between the creamy eggy goodness are notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, Grand Marnier, overproof dark rums and so many other tantalizing flavors. I always give tidings of gratitude for all our regulars as I sip this dreamy concoction every Christmas Eve.”
The magic continues Christmas morning at the March home, where his wife assumes the position of active bartender and makes her signature Lebowskis, aka White Russians. “They’re a perfect marriage of Kahlua, vodka, cream and a little something extra she keeps secret,” he says. “It’s the perfect sipper when watching our family revel in Christmas joy.”
As for Nelson, her household is all about Bloody Marys. “Like, smoked salmon pinwheels, lobsters and $20 bills crazy. We started having them instead of turkey. I don’t even remember how we started doing that, but it’s really gotten out of hand,” she says. “The Odditorium won No. 1 Bloody Mary in the Xpress readers poll this year, so I have a reputation to uphold. I just go nuts with them on Thanksgiving and Christmas day.”
Tamy Kuper’s coquito
• 1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
• 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
• 2 cups (one 15 ounce can) cream of coconut
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 1/2 cup white Don Q rum
1. Stir with intention. Garnish with cinnamon sticks. Serve with a kiss.
Jingle Jangle: Holiday Style Punch Cocktail
- 1 1/2 ounces Titos Vodka
- 1 ounce fresh blood orange juice
- 1/2 ounce cranberry juice
- 1/4 ounce holiday spiced pomegranate cordial
- 1 ounce dry prosecco
- Combine all ingredients minus the prosecco in a cocktail tin with ice. Shake vigorously. Pour everything into a large rocks glass. Finish with the prosecco pour.
- Garnish with two fresh cranberries and a mint leaf to look like a holly plant.
Jackson’s Homemade Eggnog
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
- 1 pint whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 ounces bourbon (or spiced rum)
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 4 egg whites
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks until they lighten in color. Gradually add the 1/3 cup sugar and continue to beat until it’s completely dissolved. Add the milk, cream, bourbon and nutmeg, and stir to combine.
- Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat to soft peaks. With the mixer still running, gradually add the 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
- Whisk the egg whites into the mixture. Chill and serve.