Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Yup, you guessed it. We are on the short list for the holidays. Entertaining this year may look a bit different, but the best part of a limited guest list is being able to tailor the experience for your loved ones, and perhaps leave your comfort zone behind in the process! Maine has so many delicious offerings for the budding enthusiast. With naturally-occurring gems like Maple Syrup and fresh, locally-grown apples available this time of year, consider digging in and taking inspiration from what’s at hand! We are fortunate to be able to work with local sustainable growers that can provide these delicious tools. For the forth-coming example, we will talk about bourbon, and its natural relationship with these tasty offerings.
We are fortunate to have access in our region to a delicious natural sugar; maple. Derived from a process known as “tapping”, maple sugar comes from maple trees. Purveyors of maple sugar identify trees that are primed for sugar production, and they cut into the tree, allowing the sap to flow. Once they have collected the sap, they begin to process it, boiling it down and creating maple syrup. This process results in a rich and delicious deep brown-colored sugar syrup that can very easily be mixed into a cocktail. Most regions in the US have a source of sugar that is available to them. Be it tree sap sugars like we have here in Maine, vegetation and fruit-based syrups in the South and Midwest, or cane sugars in the islands, creating sugars that naturally reflect your geography is a fun and typically simple process!
We also enjoy easy access to delicious apples in our region. Identifying your local fruit and herb options is key to creating a homemade signature cocktail; why not support local farmers when sourcing your tools? I have the good fortune of being able to visit local fruit farmers and pick apples with my family, which adds a little something extra to our experience. Apples can be used as garnish, can be muddled into a shaken cocktail, or even boiled down with cinnamon into a delicious syrup. Like sugars in the paragraph before, most regions have specific fruits and vegetables that can be sourced responsibly and enjoyed in homemade cocktails.
When it comes to creating your own signature cocktail, it is important to know the nature of the spirit you’re working with. As many know, I am absolutely head-over-feet for bourbon. With its rich color, delicious tasting notes, and a delightful predisposition for cold-weather cocktails, it goes without saying that it works for holiday entertaining. Maine is fortunate to offer several delicious bourbons, some made with ingredients sourced right here in New England. When looking for your local offerings, a quick Google search will tell you what’s available to you locally, and most distillers will create a very helpful guide to tasting notes and the distillation process that they use. Access to your sugars and fruits tends to be even simpler! Local farmers markets, or even your local grocery store will likely carry some options that are organically and locally sourced. We are fortunate in my area to have a Co-Op that carries MANY local offerings in both categories, so I usually just stop there.
Balance is the key ingredient to the process of creating a masterful and memorable cocktail. I could spend days on this topic, but the key is to avoid letting any of your ingredients take away from the base spirit, all while allowing them to stand out individually. When using local ingredients, it is important to make sure that you are focusing on show-casing their singularity! There are many guidelines for a balanced cocktail, but some especially important steps should be followed. The base spirit is the central anchor of the drink, so make sure that you’re selecting something you enjoy. You can build from this, depending on what the tasting notes in the spirit offer. Most distillers provide a handy explanation of the different ingredients in their spirit that you may use as a guide. For example, if you’re working with a bourbon that has a cinnamon profile, a cinnamon simple syrup would enhance or draw out that flavor. Using citrus can also help draw out the natural notes in a spirit, as each varies in flavor. Your base spirit should be your largest measure, followed by juices and then sugars. This tends to be true because most spirits already contain sugary notes!
When it comes to whether one should shake or strain, I use an easy-to-remember technique for determining this. What is the juice-sugar-spirit ratio? If your signature holiday cocktail consists of more than fifty percent juice and sugar, shaking will be your best approach. If you decided that your knowledge of liqueurs, brandys, et cetera lead to more than fifty percent spirit, stirring is going to blend these ingredients best. Aesthetically, stirring results in clarity, whereas shaking tends to create a color-dense effect, in the event you are trying to obtain a specific look for your drink.
There you have it! You’re ready to begin creating your signature cocktail for this holiday season. Whether you’re enjoying it at home with your immediate family, teaching your friends how to build it via Zoom call, or creating the recipe to send to your folks, the best advice I can give is to make sure to add a little something of who you are. Cocktails always seem to come out best when your heart and soul is part of the process. Happy Holidays!