For most, the festive season is rooted in ritual and tradition. But who says you can’t explore a drinkable tradition different from your own?
In examining the holiday drinks of the world, a few trends quickly revealed themselves: Colder climates gravitate toward warm and creamy drinks; everyone loves holiday spice; and, my favorite, there appear to be few rules at all. Embrace the chance to improvise and enjoy by transporting your guests—or just yourself—across the pond, beyond the border, or over the river and through the woods with these 12 holiday drink ideas.
Mull Over Some Wine
Neither the Greeks nor the Romans wasted wine. The precious commodity wasn’t as readily available as it is today, so fermented grape juice that “didn’t make the cut” wasn’t dumped; it was mixed with honey and spices and made palatable enough to drink.
The Romans traveled across Europe, often conquering but sometimes trading, bringing their wine-related customs and recipes to the far-reaching corners of their amassed Empire. In addition to their much-appreciated contributions to modern democracy, not to mention the Roman alphabet I know so well, their gift of mulled wine to Germania (Germany), Brittania (the UK), Gallia (France), and Hispania (Spain) spread throughout the Western Hemisphere. Now, each country does it slightly differently.
Germans, for instance, call theirs glühwein, a red wine-based drink traditionally spiced with varying combinations of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, star anise, ginger, and bitter orange. Serve it warm, just like they do at German Christmas markets and at the bottom of the slopes. If it’s that kind of party, know that this is often served “mit Schuss,” or with a shot of liquor added. Frohe Festtage!
Close relative: Scandinavian glogg is also red wine-based, but the Nordic countries are colder, and therefore more liberal with additional spirits, including brandy or a large dose of aquavit to warm the belly. They add a few raisins and almonds to the glass or mug, then top off with the hot glogg.
Roll With These Punches
Jamaican Sorrel Punch
Baby, it’s cold outside, but this cold punch will remind you that it’s warm somewhere. Served everywhere you go on the island during the Christmas season, the punch is made from the steeped petals of sorrel (often sold in the United States under the name dried hibiscus or Jamaica flowers), mixed with sugar, fresh ginger, lime juice, and rum. Tweak the sweet, spicy, tart, and boozy levels as you wish.
Sorrel punch is also popular throughout the Caribbean and in many Latin American countries. In Jamaica, it’s considered a panacea, believed to cure high blood pressure, colds, and coughs, and aid in weight loss. Great holiday news! Note: Don’t mistake this for the bitter green sorrel plant. It’s a flower petal that yields a lovely burgundy color.
Mexican Ponche Navideño
This warmed punch is sold by street vendors around Christmastime in Mexico. Though readily available all season, it’s directly tied to Las Posadas, the nine days leading up to Christmas that commemorate the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy.
Ponche typically includes a mix of sugar cane, cinnamon sticks, guavas, apples, pears, citrus, raisins, and prunes, but it comes with no rules, so let your creative flag fly. A common local ingredient (but no one will know if you can’t find it) is tejocotes, the holiday fruit of Mexico. It looks like a miniature apple with thin, bright yellow skin. The cream-colored fruit has a sweet and sour taste reminiscent of apricots. If you can’t find it, just add extra apple. The two spirit selections added are rum or tequila.
United (Kingdom) We Warm Up
Scottish Hot Toddy
The entrance point to the world of warm cocktails is the hot toddy or hot whiskey, a mixture of spirit (usually whiskey), hot water (or tea), and honey (or sugar). Other spices, such as cloves and cinnamon, and a lemon slice are often added, and as the name indicates, it’s served hot.
Hot toddies are traditionally drunk before retiring for the night, or in wet or cold weather. It’s been long believed that the drink has medicinal qualities, relieving symptoms of the cold and flu.
“Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail, too,” starts the refrain of “Here We Come A-wassailing,” a traditional English Christmas and New Year’s song. Wassailing dates back to the 15th century, when beggars and orphans went door-to-door singing carols in hopes of their holiday spirit melting the icicles from the hearts of the well-to-do. With any luck, the wassailers would be invited inside to partake in the housemaster’s warm hearth and take a drink from their bowl of wassail, a hot, mulled cider. Though the tradition died down and wassailing was replaced with caroling, wassail is still enjoyed over a toast to good health—wassail is Old English for “be well.”
Close relative: History lesson. Hot buttered rum is actually an American variation on the toddy. In 1655, the British Royal Navy captured Jamaica, and rum replaced those sailors’ daily ration of brandy. Colonists started to import the rum, and soon set up distilleries so they could make their own rum from inexpensive imported molasses. The drink is hot, sugary, spicy, and laced with rum; the pat of butter is the evolutionary cherry on top.
Cream of the Crop
North American Eggnog
It may be familiar, but boy, is it delicious. Hot or cold, spiked or not, this is the definitive drink of Christmas in both the United States and Canada. It’s a blend of milk, eggs yolks, sugar, and spirit. Which spirit? Depends where you live and what you like! Bourbon, rum, brandy, and whiskey are all common.
There’s much debate on eggnog’s lineage, but it’s commonly believed to have come from the medieval British drink called posset, made with hot milk curdled with wine or ale and flavored with spices, and used as a cold and flu remedy. Sounds delicious.
Close relative: Advocaat, or advocaatenborrel for those who enjoy syllables, is a traditional Dutch alcoholic beverage made from eggs, sugar, and brandy at a minimum, often further enhanced with honey, vanilla, cream, or evaporated milk. Though often called “Dutch eggnog,” it’s more like a creamy brandy custard with a pudding-like texture.
Etymology tells the tale here: “Advocaat” means lawyer in Dutch, while “borrel” refers to a small alcoholic drink consumed slowly at social gatherings. The Dutch decided that everyone deserves an intensely creamy holiday.
Puerto Rican Coquito
A wintry piña colada! It’s not the holidays in Puerto Rico without this rich, blended drink. Coquito is a blend of, at a minimum, coconut cream, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and Puerto Rican rum. Once those requirements are met, any addition of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon is acceptable.
Coquito is believed to be a descendant of eggnog, as English settlers would have brought their version and adapted it to the local ingredients, but rarely will you find it made with any egg at all. Makes sense, as coconut cream and condensed milk both hold their own in the thickness category.
Chilean Cola de Mono
This cold milk punch is a mix of milk, sugar, coffee, and aguardiente (a catch-all name for several Latin American alcohols, though in Chile it’s usually made from grapes). It’s much like a White Russian, but with Chilean spice such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla bean. While assembling this drink is easy, explaining the translation, “monkey’s tail,” is not. Chileans can’t even do it. What’s for sure is that this is the premier Chilean drink of the holiday season.
Lithuanian Poppy Milk
This traditional drink, made of the simple ingredients of poppy seeds, water, and honey, is part of the 12-dish Christmas Eve Supper, kūčios, served in Lithuania and across much of Eastern Europe. It’s made by steeping and then crushing poppy seeds (quite a time-consuming and labor-intensive process) before mixing them with boiling water and honey. This is a non-alcoholic drink, but given the opiate qualities of poppy heads, you have to wonder…
Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on UnchartedLifestyleMag.com.