Food & Drink

Holiday cocktails from cheap booze

Miriam at the Brazen head hides our alcohol shame
Miriam at the Brazen helps hide our cheapness. Photos by Eric Reichbaum.

Here’s something we learned in our conversations with bartenders during these long winter nights: The holiday season, with all its clove-spiced sweetness, is the best time of year to get away with serving cheap booze to your guests. How cheap? Think off-brand honorifics belonging to rums (Admiral Nelson, U.S. Beverage Corps, ret.) or bourbons (Kentucky Gentleman, from the 35th happiest state!).

So let’s say you have some family or coworkers dropping by and need to pass yourself off as slightly less impoverished than you really are. Follow this advice from a few of our favorite bartenders—Francesca and Jessica at Park Slope’s High Dive, and Miriam at the Brazen Head—on how to pass off the cheapest booze in the store.

First, the fine bartenders at High Dive offer some general advice for easy holiday cocktails. Hot chocolate has a strong enough flavor to mask whatever you put in it, says mixmaster Francesca. Her recommendation—a shot of peppermint schnapps. At $10 to $12 a bottle, it’s gentle on the wallet, if not the gullet (don’t swig from the bottle). “It’s not the strongest booze but you can still drink it in hot chocolate,” she says.

For a stronger kick, try Kentucky Gentleman (about $14 for a large bottle), which also makes a good compliment to a hot cider. The honey and lemon flavors take precedence over any whiskey, and Neville says using an expensive whiskey in cider doesn’t make sense anyway since the taste is buried. (A cup of whiskey for every three our four cups of cider is about standard).

Sangria is an easy boozy beverage to serve up to redden some noses since all you need is a lot of red wine (the honorable Charles Shaw, presiding) and some sliced fruit. If you have a big crowd, Jessica, another High Dive bartender, offers her recipe for making a whole bunch of sangria:

Three Buck Chuck Sangria

1 case of red wine (about $36 using Three Buck Chuck)
1 mid-sized bottle of cheap brandy (our favorite: E&J, aka Easy Jesus, about $10 or $12 for 750 ml bottle)
various spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves
various fruits, including apples, oranges, lemon or strawberries (about one piece of the large fruit per bottle of wine or one cup of strawberries per bottle)

Put the wine into a large pot or slow boiler. Cut up the fruit into wedges and wrap the spices in a piece of cheese cloth. Put everything into the wine. Add sugar and honey to taste, but Jessica says don’t skimp on the sugar. Let it heat over a medium flame for 20-30 minutes, but don’t overheat it. Then get out your ladle and serve it warm into mugs. For a sweet twist, Francesca suggests putting sugar on some strawberries and let them sit over night. The strawberries will make their own juice you can add to the mix for extra sweetness.

Miriam puts the twinkle in our Fat Santa
Miriam puts the twinkle in our Fat Santa

The Fat Santa

Miriam, bartender from the Brazen Head, says that the beauty of this recipe is that even a discering palate wouldn’t detect the generic liquors “Guess what? There is no difference,” Miriam says. “Once you shake it up and add cream, it’s all delicious.”

1 chilled martini glass, or, in a pinch, a wine glass, mason jar, or whathaveyou
3 parts vanilla vodka (Burnett’s vanilla vodka is quite cheap, about 1/3 the price of Stoli. Or get some super cheap plain vodka and infuse your own using vanilla beans.)
2 parts Bailey’s-esque generic Irish cream liquer (she used Brady’s, which is sometimes half the price of Bailey’s)
2 mini candy canes

Shake the ingredients and pour into the glass. Crush one of the candy canes and sprinkle it on top. Use the other for festive garnish. Tastes like a Thin Mint cookie and a White Russian had a Christmas baby.

The Admiral’s Christmas Sweater

4 parts Admiral Nelson (or similar off-brand Captain Morgan)
1 part butterscotch schnapps
1 part apple cider

Shake and pour over ice in a cocktail glass. Top with a spritz of ginger ale and garnish with a slice of apple and some cinnamon. It tastes like a scene in a Christmas catalog gushing with family cheer and steaming mugs.

Bonus advice from Miriam: almost every brand-name liquor has a much-cheaper copycat generic version from a different company. Any sweet ingredients will cancel out the bite of generic brands. If all else fails, buy some cheap decorative colored sugar to quickly dress up any drink. Maybe your guests will be too distracted to notice the crappy schnapps wafting through the room.

Miriam believes in Santa, and not overspending on liquor
Miriam believes in Santa, and not overspending on liquor


  1. Unfortunately, while sweet or creamy ingredients will cover the FLAVOR of cheap liquor, they won’t prevent you from getting that wonderful cheap liquor hangover.

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