Even when served under the non-comittal heading of "holiday," most seasonal cocktails taste like Christmas. Swamped with the flavors of nutmeg and cream, cinnamon and peppermint, the drinks evoke evenings spent trimming trees and hanging stockings.
"There are 20 volumes on Christmas cocktails, and three volumes on nogs alone," says San Francisco cocktail enthusiast Rob Corwin. "It's not a competition, but Hanukkah needs a cocktail to call its own."
For a recent party, I mixed Dr. Brown's Black Cherry soda with vodka and lime juice to create a distinctly Jewish spritzer for pairing with latkes. But Corwin, who's giving his husband a bottle of Blue Magellan gin for Hanukkah, envisioned something more sophisticated when a friend asked him what they planned to mix for a holiday get-together.
"I said, 'For Hanukkah, we only serve flaming drinks. What's your insurance policy?'," Corwin says. "It's very much tongue in cheek, but last year, during the holidays, we were sort of deep in old cocktail manuals and thought that would be fun, eight flaming cocktails. It's maybe more than people want to deal with this time of year."
Corwin and his husband, Danny Jacobs, established themselves as Jewish cocktail experts with The Sipping Seder, a project in which they reimagined the ritual items on the traditional Passover plate as cocktails. Instead of bitter herbs, for example, they suggested a martini made with beets and fresh horseradish.
"We've gotten this tremendous reaction," Corwin says. "People are asking 'what are you going to do for this holiday?'"
The thirst for Jewish cocktails has surprised some observers, who don't associate Jews with alcohol. Judaism doesn't forbid drinking - Jews are supposed to drink on certain holidays - but many Jewish-Americans, including Jacobs, recall their families keeping a single bottle of liquor solely for entertaining purposes. Only 11 percent of Jewish men abuse alcohol, as compared to 28 percent of non-Jewish men.
But Corwin says there's a significant sub-group of Jews who are interested in craft cocktails. A cocktail that references a religious holiday can enrich their drinking and spiritual experiences, he says.
For Hanukkah, Corwin and Jacobs invented a "Maca-bee" cocktail. The Macabees were the warriors at the center of the Hanukkah story, but the term here refers to a mix of macadamia liqueur and honey. The base spirit is rye.
Corwin hasn't overanalyzed the drink, but a Hebrew School student could find symbolism in it. Like the oil which lasted and lasted, the cocktail's flavor lingers on the palate. "That's the magic of this cocktail," Corwin says. The ingredients also subtly reference the Land of Milk and Honey, where the battles commemorated by Hanukkah occurred.
Although the drink doesn't have any peppermint or cinnamon, Corwin says its warming, nutty overtones "sort of fit with wearing a sweater."
When they finished their Sipping Seder, Corwin and Jacobs worried the concept might offend devout Jews. A rabbi reassured them that there was nothing sacrilegious about adding a new dimension to Passover observances.
"He brought up this idea that there's a commandment to take traditions and make them meaningful to successive generations," Corwin says. "There are people for whom this is meaningful."
2 oz (60 ml) Redemption High-Rye Bourbon
¼ oz (7 ml) Honey Syrup [2:1]
¼ oz (7 ml) Lemon Juice
1 tsp (1.25 ml) Trader Vic's Macadamia Nut Liqueur
1) Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Shake well with ice.
2) Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a chilled cocktail glass.
3) Twist a swatch of lemon peel over the top and drop into the glass.
As an option, consider flaming the lemon peel to caramelize the citrus oils. It adds a complexity to the flavor and a nice bit of Hanukkah flare for your guests. If you haven't done this before, check out Chow.com's quick video tip on the technique.
To make the honey syrup, dissolve two parts of honey in one part of hot water. Chill before using. Adding a tiny amount of vodka will extend the syrup's shelf life.
Be careful with the macadamia nut liqueur. It can easily overpower the cocktail.