Bright Spirits

December 2016 | view this story as a .pdf

By Karen Hofreiter

after-dark-dec16The winter holiday season would not be complete without eggnog and wassail, which cannot properly be imbibed without a heartfelt toast. The tradition of toasting began in 450 AD with glasses raised and the words “waes hael” (“good health”) uttered in honor of British King Vortigern. The popularity of the toast soared as it became the ideal excuse to drink more and more. One sip for each toast to the king, the lords and ladies of the court, and perhaps even the royal wolfhounds. Although this “toasting the town” eventually went out of vogue, what remains today is the need for the perfect reason to partake in a bit of liquid pleasure. December is full of such reasons, one of which is the celebration of the ratification of the 21st Amendment (a.k.a. the death of Prohibition) on December 5th, 1933. Whatever your reason, we’ve compiled the top places in Portland to indulge and enjoy the holiday hedonism.

Elixir Fixer

Now that the summer crowds have waned, you’ll finally be able to grab a seat at Eventide Oyster Co. The bar teems with staff hand-shucking Maine oysters and whipping up classic cocktails with a twist. “As soon as it gets cold, people switch from clear to dark spirits. Our bourbon consumption goes through the roof,” says John Myers. As the beverage manager of the Middle Street foodie trifecta that includes Eventide, The Honey Paw, and Hugo’s, he should know. Myers recommends the “Muddled Old Fashioned” for a wintery evening. “The bitters we use are very aromatic. You can smell the notes of cinnamon and cloves in the glass. Then we bruise up the orange and Luxardo cherries to release the flavors of the fruit. It’s a very rich cocktail.”

His New Year’s Eve indulgence? “One of our ‘Dirty Dirty Martinis’ with fresh local oysters. December is the sweet spot for East Coast oysters. It’s when they’re just fattening up for winter. The oyster brine in the Martini makes it a perfect pairing.”

Winter Warmers

Given predictions from the Old Farmer’s Almanac of a “colder than normal” Northeast winter, why not stabilize your body temperature at Boone’s Fish House. With a grand fireplace to warm you from the outside, festive and sparkling decorations to warm your spirit, and invigorating cocktails, Boone’s is the embodiment of gemütlichkeit, the German expression for a place of comfort and good cheer. “It’s a cozy atmosphere,” says general manager Abigail Moon. “And to pair with our wintry cocktails we’ll have a seasonal happy-hour menu with carb-comforting, cheesy foods like potato skins and nachos.” (Totally fine, since diets are scheduled for next year!) Moon says the cocktail menu changes, but a favorite we hope to see back on the menu–and a perfect example of Boone’s mixology magic–is the Custom House Cider à la mode. Made from Bulleit Rye, Crown Royal Regal Apple, Liquor 43, muddled apple, cinnamon, and brown sugar, served with fresh whipped cream in a graham-cracker-rimmed glass, the Custom House Cider is a for those of us with a sweet tooth. If you’re more of a classic cocktail drinker, Boone’s Old Port Fashioned puts a spin on the traditional recipe by substituting sugar with honey, followed by a dash of black walnut bitters for a certain je ne sais quoi.

If the winter blues are stalking you, it’s time to get some liquid sunshine to lift the spirits, particularly on the winter solstice (December 21), when Portland will be bathed in daylight for a mere eight hours and 55 minutes. You will find your elixir at Rhum, where sun-drenched and carefree Polynesia is channeled. Forge a full-on winter rebellion and ditch the gray cable knit in favor of something bright and sleeveless and perhaps rub on some coconut-scented sunscreen for a whiff of summer nostalgia. Anti-winter libations like the Junglebird, with Black Strap rum, Campari, simple syrup, pineapple and lime juices will fuel your spirits. “It’s nice and spicy with a maple finish, so it’s a great seasonal cocktail. We nicknamed it ‘The Millionaire’ because it’s rich and bitter,” says Sarah Whitmore, Rhum’s bar manager.

If the weather has you feeling a bit…well, under the weather, reach for Liquid Riot’s “Penicillin” cocktail. “We mix up honey, ginger, lemon, and simple syrup and shake the hell out of it. It’s important to aerate the cocktail,” says bar manager Brie Kenoyer. “We then drip Laphroaig whiskey over the ice cubes so you can really smell the peaty smokiness of the scotch.” The combination of the whiskey, honey, and lemon is sure to have a medicinal effect on your mood.

A Taste of the Season

The holiday season means family, and family can mean trying to satisfy a myriad of different opinions and desires. A visit to Vena’s Fizz House will keep everyone in joyful spirits. The effervescent menu gladdens with inventive cocktails, kid-friendly fizzes (similar to the Tootsie Soda Pop with house-made chocolate syrup and orange shrub), and alcohol-free mocktails sophisticated enough to fool a connoisseur. Try the Wilbur, with its smoked tart cherry purée, blood orange, ginger purée, and bacon bitters for the younger (or just more virtuous) members of the group. Also deserving of mention is the space itself, which co-owner Steve Corman has heard patrons describe as having a “‘different feel from any other bar or store, a very welcoming feel.’ We attribute that to being in sort of a mixology world, a world apart from the one outside our door. We make over 200 kinds of bitters. Bitters give drinks their complexity and can completely transform them. [It’s a metaphor] for our atmosphere.” Tongue-tantalizing offers this season include the bourbon-laced Maple Pear Old Fashioned and the Spiced Rum with cinnamon, star anise, orange, coconut sugar, and bitters (also available as an infusion kit).

“Our winter offerings include many warming spices, like nutmeg,” says Corman. “A favorite addition is a cardamom clove simple syrup from Royal Rose Syrups in Brunswick.” Another perk of a visit to Vena’s: the convenience of having a tipple while getting a bit of Christmas shopping done–their infusion kits and gift certificates for post-holiday mixology classes are always a hit.

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