Battling Tab A and Slot B on Christmas Eve has been an American institution since the first box marked “some assembly required” rolled off the assembly line. Past generations waged war on half-finished bikes and train sets without today’s color-coded parts or power screwdrivers. Using only grit, determination, and a stiff drink - often featuring rye - they turned piles of parts into Christmas miracles. And while the whiskey may not turn today’s parents into yesterday’s jack-of-all-trades, it certainly can’t hurt on a night spent the same way it was 40 years ago - cursing Barbie and her darn dream house. I can come in handy after a day of opening presents, too.
Rye whiskey is made from at least 51 percent rye and was, most likely, what grandpa was sipping to ease the pain of piecing together presents using convoluted assembly instructions written by a ancestor of Michael Bay. With New England growing huge fields of rye, it was the northern answer to bourbon, and remains one of the two truly American spirits.
Spicier, bitterer, and slightly less sweet than bourbon, few people sip rye the way they do bourbon. But rye can use those peppery notes and complex flavor that normally hit you like a 2x4 to its advantage. These powerful tastes, often with undertones of vanilla and citrus, help it play well with others - making it the star in hundreds of classic cocktails developed with rye in mind. And because Don Draper downs these classics by the gallon in “Mad Men,” many of them have made their way back onto today’s cocktail lists.
Even better, the classics are simple to make, meaning a home mixologist can use them to calm lingering cases of Ikea-inspired rage on Christmas Eve, or day. Below are three that will go a long way toward quieting the Grinch within.
The Sazerac - Reportedly the first cocktail ever invented in America, the Sazerac was invented in New Orleans sometime in the 1830s. Originally made with cognac, the drink evolved to use rye. The spice of the whiskey lends the drink a more complex flavor and warmth than the sweeter cognac - especially in combination with the muddled sugar and herbal impact of the absinthe the cocktail calls for. Using a rye like Sazerac's 90-Proof Straight Rye Whiskey lends it a distinct holiday air as well - with candied spices, citrus flavors and a licorice aftertaste making the original American mixed drink perfect for a long night of present wrapping, and the 1,000th screening of “It's a Wonderful Life.”
- 1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
- Three dashes Peychaud's Bitters
- One sugar cube, or .5 ounces simple syrup
- 1/4 ounce Absinthe or Pernod
Pack an old-fashioned glass (or a small juice glass) with ice. In another glass muddle a sugar cube and 3 dashes of Peychaud's Bitters. Add the rye to the sugar/Bitters mixture. Empty the ice from the first glass, pour the absinthe into the glass and swirl it around to coat the sides. Toss out the absinthe so there's just a thin coating. Then pour the rye mixture into the glass with the absinthe. And if you're feeling really ambitious – garnish with a lemon peel.
The Ward 8 - A perfect option to ignite the holiday spirit within anyone who'd rather watch C-Span than sing carols, the Ward 8 was supposedly created in Boston during the 1898 election to celebrate the election of a prominent Democrat to the state legislature in the city's 8th ward. Other stories about the cocktail range from it being the official drink of the Scottish Guards to claims that it was named for an incredibly corrupt area of New York. Whichever origin story is true, it's a sweet and sour concoction that balances orange and lemon with the spicy tang and warmth of good rye - easily fortifying anyone to face one more rendition of “The Christmas Song” by the Chipmunks. A rye like Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve works especially well, cutting the sweetness of the fruit with a slight chili pepper-like burn.
- 2 ounces rye
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
- 1 teaspoon grenadine
- Maraschino cherry (optional)
Shake the rye, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine in a shaker with ice, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry (or three, since people love the things so much).
The Manhattan - The Manhattan is the undisputed king of rye cocktails and, if it wasn't for James Bond and his martinis, likely would see its domain extended to the entire drinking world. Just like Santa Claus, there are a ridiculous number of legends about the creation of the Manhattan, and the myths just make the cocktail that much more intriguing. Luckily, the rye drink lives up to the hype, with the mix of rye, vermouth, and bitters recalling simpler times when the holidays didn't seem to pass by so quickly. Or include a TV channel devoted to a burning Yule log. It's strong, complex, and if it was good enough for Frank Sinatra, it should certainly be good enough for anyone. Some ryes are even made to mix in Manhattans. Hudson Manhattan Rye, for example, has a somewhat fruity taste cut with black pepper that's designed to pair with sweet vermouth.
- 2 ounces rye
- 1 ounce sweet red vermouth
- Dash Angostura bitters
- Maraschino cherry
Shake in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass. Drop a maraschino cherry in.
- For a Dry Manhattan, replace the sweet vermouth with dry vermouth.
- For a Perfect Manhattan, use .5 ounces sweet vermouth and .5 ounces dry vermouth.