I’ve always felt disconnected from the Holiday season. While I grew up Catholic it has had been many a solstice since I identified as such. I’ve also spent the past 10+ years living 2,500+ miles from the family and friends I grew up with. As such when the holidays roll around I often find myself latching on to the traditions and celebrations of my friends. Which is why the one tradition that I do have from my childhood is so fascinating to me.
When I was about 5 my grandfather gave me a nutcracker for Christmas. My siblings were so jealous that the next year he gave all four of us our own nutcrackers. It was a few more years, and arguments about which nutcracker belong to who, before we started putting our names on this ever-expanding collection. So while they ostensibly belonged to someone they were really just collectively ours. When my grandfather passed away my grandmother took up the tradition and it took on new meaning. If you enter my family’s house at Christmas a veritable army of wooden soldiers, drummers, cobblers, and pirates stand ready to perform their ceremonial duty.
Like all terrifying dolls the nutcrackers eventually escaped their Christmassy confines and spilled over into the rest of life. Currently sitting on my desk in the 70 degree California sunshine is a board short wearing, hipster beard sporting, surfer bro nutcracker that marked my first full year on the West Coast. It’s a touchstone that exists beyond its original conception.
It also led to the creation of the Nutcracker Cocktail.
The Nutcracker was originally conceived as a drink for the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition a few years ago. I drew on all of the above thoughts about tradition and threw them into a glass. I wanted a drink that was very evocative of a time and place but that also existed outside of its “seasonality” just like the Nutcracker resting on my desk.
I knew I wanted the drink to be based around Elijah Craig Bourbon. Not simply because it was one of the options for the competition but because it is an actual touchstone whiskey for me. The very first private barrel of whiskey I ever picked out was a barrel of Elijah Craig. It’s a whiskey that’s been my companion through my journeys behind bar since the very beginning. It carries a weight, a depth, a tannin, and an earthiness that makes it a classic backbone for a whiskey focused drink.
Next, I wanted a solid bitter base to enhance the earthiness while also adding in an extra dry component to balance the sweet components I knew would inevitably make their way into the glass. The Clemanti China provided a suitable Manhattan-esque build while adding in a beautiful shock of the bitter.
Next were the seasonal elements. You can’t call a drink “The Nutcracker” without any nuts so a touch of Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur added in a discernable nuttiness to play off the base of the Elijah Craig. This Made the drink Nutty but still dry, too dry. To balance this a hint of Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao added in both the Christmas sweetness and memories as well as a balance for the dry, dry, dry components.
To tie it all together, and to add a hint of fruit to brighten up all of these dark nutty elements, a few finishing dashes of angostura orange bitters went into the mix.
Now, this drink was fine. However, it didn’t evoke anything larger than itself to me. It was a wintery sipper that was Mostly just a slightly esoteric Manhattan. It needed something to pull it out of its time and place.
I briefly considered making it a warm drink but that would have turned it into a drink that I had no interest in drinking. I almost universally hate hot beverages, from coffee to tea and everything in between. So, instead I turned to other childhood memories as well as my local Japanese grocery store. In both of those places I found chestnuts.
Growing up there were several horse chestnut trees in my yard which when the chestnuts would fall I would end up chucking at my siblings as children do. And in the Japanese market there were wonderfully proportioned bags of roasted, soft chestnuts for the holidays. This was the missing factor for this drink.
I pulled out the Spinzall and infused the chestnuts into the Elijah Craig, stirred everything together and expressed an orange zest over the drink tying in the underlying orange bitters. Now the drink sang. It was complex, fruity, dry with an intriguing sweetness, and was no longer simply a “Christmas Drink.”
1.5 oz Chestnut Infused Elijah Craig Bourbon
.5 oz Clemanti China Antique
.25 oz Hau Alperine Nux Walnut
.25 oz Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao
2 Dash Angostura Orange Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass.
Stir with Kold Draft Ice.
Strain into a punch glass.
Garnish with an orange twist studded with clove.
Revisiting this drink years later there are a few changes I would make. I might add a splash of Verjus to add in more acidity to the heavy nature of the ingredients. Or I might add in a touch of Oloroso Sherry to length the drink while staying rich and stirred.
But then again, some traditions shouldn’t be over thought.