Warm the hearts of your loved ones with handcrafted seasonal drinks created by two of Texas’ cocktail kings.
A few years ago, a good friend invited me and a couple of buddies to his ranch in Central Texas around Christmastime. We drove down in late afternoon and stopped for dinner in a small town along the way. We marveled that every storefront had a tree in the window, covered by twinkling lights that looked beautiful and ghostly through the wintry rime — like the background of a Norman Rockwell painting.
By the time we got to the ranch, the sun was setting. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping quickly. It took a while to get the key to work in the old lock. Our host explained that his great-grandfather had purchased the property in the early 1950s and that recently it had become a modest family retreat. Behind the two-bedroom ranch house were hundreds of acres of pastures and bluffs. His family had come here for decades to hunt deer and turkey and quail, to walk by the streams and the ravine, and to escape the hassles of everyday life. When we finally got the door open, we noticed that the heat hadn’t been on in some time and that the inside of the house was surprisingly cold — the kind of frigid air that chafes the tip of your nose a bit. Even the antique furniture seemed chilly.
“It’s gonna take a while to warm up,” my friend said, a little embarrassed.
We all sat in the living room, in winter coats and gloves, huddled around a 30-year-old space heater. We were mostly quiet. Nobody wanted to seem ungrateful. I started to wonder if maybe coming here was a mistake, if maybe his family ranch wasn’t as great as my friend had always claimed.
That’s when one of the other guys opened up his bag and reached inside. From a few feet away, I couldn’t see the label, but I could see the thick glass handle on the side of the bottle.
“Well, I was gonna wait for this,” he said. “But I’ve got something that might warm us up.” He smiled and lifted the bottle with both gloved hands, like you would a jug.
I still remember the sound of that slippery cork twisting off. The gloves came off and we looked around: Coffee mugs would work. As a few ounces dripped into each cup, the whiskey looked like warm, soft amber.
It wasn’t rare or expensive whiskey, but in that moment it was glorious. There’s something about a stiff drink in the dead of winter, something about that subtle sting as it passes your lips, the way it thaws you and makes your chest feel like it’s glowing.
After a few big sips, we appreciated the sturdiness of the old house, the craftsmanship of the old couch and wooden coffee table. What had seemed like small quarters on a wide prairie now felt cozy, appropriate. Eventually we felt warm enough to wander back outside to stare at the night sky. It was full of stars that twinkled brighter than the lights in the windows in town. We looked at the tree line, at the crests of the hills visible in the moonlight. We talked about the real gifts in life. Then we toasted to my friend and his family. We toasted to my other friend and his bottle. We toasted to ourselves and poured another round.
For me, this is what holiday spirits are all about: the moments with friends that turn into great memories. Good drinks can bring people together. They can turn strangers into friends and friends into family. They can bring the same kind of warmth people have felt around campfires for centuries.
To this end, I asked two of Texas’ luminary mixologists to create some recipes of their own. Michael Martensen and Jason Kosmas are young guns who have helped pioneer the craft cocktail scene in the Lone Star State.
Martensen is behind the cocktail programs at both The Cedars Social and Bar Smyth, as well as several others, in Dallas, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s drinking scene (he’s been known to recite historical Prohibition-era anecdotes).
Kosmas, now based in Austin, mixed drinks at Dallas hot spots Neighborhood Services Tavern, Bolsa, and Village Marquee Grill & Bar before helping launch The Eighty Six Co. to create new brands of spirits. He also co-wrote Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined.
“Holiday cocktails are all about time, place, and occasion,” Kosmas says. “Whether with friends or family, a cocktail is a cherished moment to share in Texas.” Here’s to that.
From the November/December 2013 issue.