Cheers! Holiday Spirits

By Melanie Gold

There are several things we look forward to as the holidays approach. In the Lehigh Valley that might mean a drive through a holiday lights display, seeing the “putz” or Moravian nativity scenes or shopping at a craft fair. And great holiday traditions almost always include great at-home parties with family and friends.

As the days shorten and winter approaches, our attention turns to cold or warm drinks that can be enjoyed after a vigorous afternoon on the slopes, the ice-skating rink or the backyard with the kids. These days you can get all manner of artisanal liquid concoctions. How about a pumpkin-pie-spiced beverage laced with Kentucky bourbon and maple syrup? Or perhaps a crème brulee martini, a microbrewed winter ale, a mulled wine or a creamy chai-and-vanilla drink dusted with ground nutmeg and garnished with star anise?

These are just the kind of drinks that Rocco Maniscalco has been mixing up for more than 20 years. Maniscalco, of Allentown, has been a head bartender, a bar manager, and a bartending instructor in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and currently offers professional bartending for private parties. In his forthcoming book, Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of the Seven Fishes, available in specialty stores throughout the Lehigh Valley, Rocco and his wife, Linda, offer recipes for holiday entertaining. They include the Italian Hot Chocolate, spiked with amaretto liqueur, and the non-alcoholic Bambino’s Hot Chocolate, a creamier version topped with chocolate shavings.

“A rum-based egg nog with a cinnamon stick garnish will always be in vogue,” he says, but his personal favorite is a baked-apple martini made of rum, apple schnapps, and cranberry juice.

Fermented beverages date back to the Stone Age and have enjoyed popularity around the world, often because water supplies were contaminated. Home-brewed beer was a daily staple in Ancient Egypt. In China, a wine of fermented rice, honey, and fruit was a symbol of hospitality, and alcohol in general was widely regarded as an antidote for various ailments. Mead, a honeyed beverage, was popular in Greece and is cited in the Old English epic Beowulf. And in Mexico and Central America, pulque was a milky agave-based drink used in religious ceremonies until the Spanish conquest secularized it. It is the ancestor to what we now know as tequila, one of the five most commonly used spirits in America.

Michael Fegley, advertising and public relations manager for the Allentown Brew Works, knows a thing or two about the history of alcohol. During his 16-year career as a bartender, bar manager, and beverage buyer in Manhattan and the Lehigh Valley, Fegley wrote a training manual for barkeeping and researched the history of many of our favorite liquors. He believes European colonization is responsible for the popularity of many of today’s alcoholic beverages.

“Every time the Spanish or British landed in another place they wanted to colonize, they’d walk by a religious ceremony and see a fermented beverage and say, ‘Oh, look at that!’” Fegley says. According to his research, after England colonized the Caribbean islands, the British Royal Navy mandated a daily ration of a half pint of 160-proof rum for each sailor. “It was used to enhance fighting courage, and to keep sailors boozed up and happy,” Fegley says. “Some of them would hoard their rations, and then give the rum as gifts when they got back home.”

To keep modern-day holiday revelers happy, Maniscalco and Fegley agree that successful holiday entertaining is more about the company you keep, not how stocked your bar is. They advise party planners to be aware of what their guests like to drink and plan accordingly. Newcomers should consider stocking the five most commonly used spirits: gin, rum or bourbon, tequila, triple sec, and vodka. Fegley’s favorite premium brands include Beefeater, Knob Creek, Patrón, Grand Marnier, and Grey Goose respectively, but he says you don’t need premium brands if you’re going to make mixed drinks.

“Once you put something else in the glass, the alcohol has changed,” Fegley says. “At that point, you don’t need a fancy gin to make a good gin and tonic.”

Glass choices depend on presentation and whether or not they include ice. Mainly, he says, don’t fret over having the wrong glass, so long as you have at least a set of lowball glasses (short tumblers holding 6 to 10 ounces), which are also called rocks glasses or Old Fashioned glasses. Maniscalco suggests adding to that a set of highball glasses (tumblers holding 8 to 12 ounces) and stemmed wineglasses, as the stem prevents the wine from being warmed by your hand. Warm drinks are best served in handled mugs to prevent burned fingers.

Accoutrements, per Fegley, include a kettle of hot water, individual cocoa or cider packets, Hershey’s syrup and your favorite dessert topping (such as raspberry sauce), and other sweet and creamy liqueurs (such as Baileys Irish Cream, Kahlúa coffee liqueur, crème de cacao and crème de menthe) and single-serve bottles of tonic water that allow you to serve a fresh drink to each guest. Must-have barware, according to Maniscalco, includes a long-handled bar spoon, a pestle-like muddler for mashing herbs and fruit, a mixing cup with strainer and a corkscrew or wine opener.

Maniscalco’s favorite retailer for buying glasses and barware is The Restaurant Store in Allentown, which sells restaurant-grade items and is open to the public. Fegley prefers the premium collection at Fine Wine and Good Spirits in Northampton Crossings, just north of Easton, where you can buy liter bottles for just a couple dollars more than the standard 750 ml bottles.

“I’m a sucker for Christmas,” Fegley says, counting off his favorite holiday music performers. “But if you’re having a cocktail party, try a Jackie Gleason Christmas album. He was a big band leader, and that is good background music for a party. Mainly remember it’s all about the company, and if you have some leftover spirits, is that so bad?”

Melanie Gold is a writer and book editor who is giving homemade Chambord chocolate truffles as holiday gifts this year.

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