What you want: A festive bar that will add panache to your next holiday party. What you don't want: Having to spend oodles of cash on a confusing array of bottles you're not sure how to use.
The solution? Pick booze that -- like the best kind of guest -- is flexible, able to take on different roles as party dynamics dictate.
So we asked three bartenders to come up with one liquor and three ways to serve it and got the following suggestions.
At Bistro Boudin in San Francisco's historic Fisherman's Wharf, bartender Nicholas Reynders goes for the classic clear spirit, vodka.
He'd first serve it as a blueberry-tini, mixing a shot of vodka with ½ ounce of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar is melted, then cooled) and 12 fresh blueberries. Combine all with ice in a shaker, then shake, strain and serve in a martini glass.
For a second treatment he starts by muddling a bit of cantaloupe in a shaker. (Muddling is a bartenders' term for mushing fruit, veggies or herbs in the bottom of a glass or shaker. You can do this with a special tool called, logically, a muddler, or just use a wooden spoon.) Add 1½ ounces vodka plus an equal amount of simple syrup, shake with ice, strain and serve over ice with a splash of soda water.
For the simplest treatment, he recommends a shot of vodka, an equal amount simple syrup, and a squeeze of lime and lemon juice all shaken over ice and strained into a martini glass.
A cocktail party doesn't have to be elaborate, says Reynders. Shaker, jigger, mixing glass and you're halfway there. "A little extra shake doesn't hurt for the perfect chilled martini."
Sombra Mezcal founder Richard Betts recommends this smoky spirit for holiday get-togethers because "it mixes well in drinks from margaritas to Manhattans. It can be great neat and, if it's that kind of party, it's a great shot, too."
Plus it fits into his party philosophy. "Have a point of view. You cannot be everything to everyone, so pick something and geek out on it. Mezcal is a great example because you're exploring the real
agave spirit of Mexico and this is cool."
A quick primer on mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the maguey plant, a type of agave. When the spirit is made from the blue agave and comes from certain designated areas, it's tequila. So while all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila. In the past, mezcal outside Mexico has often been of poor quality and contained a worm in the bottle, a marketing gimmick dreamed up in the 1940s. These days, there's quality mezcal to be found.
For his triple-play approach, Betts suggests making a batch of a modified version of the saint's eye cocktail on the Sombra website devised by Jim Meehan, author of "The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy" -- 2 ounces mezcal, ¾ ounce lime juice, ¾ ounce pineapple juice, 1 bar spoon of agave nectar and a sprig of tarragon to garnish.
As a counterpunch to that citrusy concoction he'd mix up a mezcal Manhattan with 2 1/2 ounces mezcal, ¾ ounce sweet vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters, 1 maraschino cherry and an orange peel garnish.
And, finally, he'd serve mezcal neat. "It is the best way for people to really appreciate how special it is."
Growing up in Kentucky, bourbon was a holiday staple on the bar and the kitchen, playing an integral role in seasonal dishes, says Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson's Bourbon.
His grandma's bourbon pecan pie capped off the night and when people visited she "didn't ask what you wanted to drink; rather, she asked, 'how do you take your bourbon?"'
A uniquely American spirit, bourbon is versatile and complex. Zoeller doesn't recommend masking the flavor in a cocktail, but instead finding ingredients that complement the vanilla and caramel flavors of the whiskey.
He'd make an old fashioned, which "screams holiday season with its warmth and balance." Mix 1¾ ounces bourbon with a dash of water and a dash or two of Angostura bitters, mixing all in an old fashioned glass and adding ice cubes.
He's also come up with something he calls seasons greetings from Kentucky -- 2 ounces Jefferson's Very Small Batch Bourbon, 1 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, 1 ounce applejack, stirred over ice and strained into a coupe glass.
His third approach is bourbon spice cider, made of 2 quarts spiced cider, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, a pinch each of nutmeg and allspice and 1 tablespoon orange peel. The cider makes enough for about eight cocktails. Simmer the cider with spices for 15 to 20 minutes. Pour 2 ounces of bourbon in each mug, pour 8 ounces of strained spiced hot cider over the bourbon and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
It is, says Zoeller, "a festive, batch-able classic."
If that doesn't say holiday cheer, what does?