7 Classic Winter Cocktails for a Spirited Event

Simple Recipes, Variations, and Pairings to Make Planning Easy

It’s arguably the most nostalgic time of year. The winter holidays are filled with childhood memories, family get-togethers, and time-honored traditions. Think: Christmas crooners on a vintage-inspired record player, the smells of fresh pine and cedar, a menu full of your family’s favorite dishes. Lean into the nostalgia this winter with our classic cocktail menu for your next gathering. 

Our list of favorites includes some nonalcoholic options so everyone can have a taste, even the little ones. To make your planning easier, we’ve also suggested pairings for each cocktail. Note that most of these iconic drinks call for simple, high-quality ingredients, so choose your spirits, liqueurs, and garnishes wisely.

Martini

Martini sitting on a wooden bar next to two olives

One of the world’s most beloved cocktails, the martini has a lot going for it. The spirit-forward profile highlights the juniper berry, citrus, and spice in your favorite gin. Its other main ingredient—herbaceous vermouth—creates a flexible crisp finish.

Recipe: Standard recipes call for 1 part vermouth to 3 parts gin. Carefully stir your spirits in ice to chill the mixture. Then strain the mixture into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with an elegant twist of lemon peel or an olive. Et voila! The noble martini.

Variations

  • Vodka martini: Replace gin with vodka for another classic, one that’s a bit smoother and dryer. 
  • Pomegranate martini: Add a celebratory holiday touch with this ruby-red, fruity twist. Combines 1.5 parts vodka, 1 part pomegranate juice, 0.5 parts orange liqueur, and a dash of lemon or lime juice. Use the peel as a garnish.

Pairs with:

  • Choose a sweet, buttery olive (we like Castelvetrano or Peranzana).
  • Need protein? Try shrimp cocktail, salmon rillettes, or tuna tonnato.

Old-Fashioned

An old-fashioned with twisted orange peel sitting on a wooden bar

The perfect drink for sipping slowly, this vintage favorite makes a great accompaniment to conversations with friends. Add an armchair by a crackling fire, and you’ve hit gold. 

You can choose a bourbon or a rye whiskey for respectively sweeter or dryer tipples. The fruit should be used as a garnish only; let the whiskey remain the star of the show.

Recipe: Place 2 teaspoons of simple syrup in a mixing glass with the bitters. Mix briefly, then add ice and 2 ounces of whiskey. Stir to chill. Strain into a lowball glass containing an ice ball or large ice cube. Garnish with orange zest and a cherry.

Variations

  • Amaretto old-fashioned: Add a dash of amaretto or use it to replace the simple syrup altogether for a holiday-flavored version.
  • Rum old-fashioned: Less sweet and more spiced, this version swaps out whiskey for dark rum, adds a dash of allspice dram, and ups the bitters to 4 dashes, half of them orange.

Pairs with:

  • The classic choice is spiced pecans, but roasted almonds or spicy mixed nuts are another option.
  • Easy to make, impressive to serve: bacon-wrapped figs with goat cheese.

French 75

A French 75 sitting on a metal grated bar

Aiming for elegance? This World-War-I era mix of champagne, gin (or cognac), lemon, and sugar will do the trick. Be careful, though. Famously named for the 75mm Howitzer field gun, this one packs a wallop on the sly. Maybe that’s why it’s a New Year’s favorite.

Recipe: Combine 1 ounce gin or cognac, 0.5 an ounce fresh lemon juice, 0.5 an ounce simple syrup in an ice-filled shaker. Shake thoroughly, strain into a chilled champagne glass, and add 3 ounces chilled champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Variations:

  • Tom Collins: An icon in its own right, this crisp and refreshing drink is the forebearer of the French 75 and pioneered high-volume, low-alcohol cocktails. Swap out the champagne for club soda. Add another ounce of gin and a 0.5 ounce of juice, and you’re there.
  • French 77: For those who appreciate botanicals in their bubbly, throw in some elderflower liqueur. Presto, the French 77.

Pairs with:

  • Balance the tartness with bruschetta topped with goat cheese, Prosciutto, and figs.
  • This brunch classic pairs perfectly with mini quiches of gruyere, mushroom, and caramelized onions.

White Russian

A white Russian sitting on a marble bar

For guests who can’t let go of their coffee, even at night, we have an answer—the White Russian. Simple yet effective, this velvety blend of heavy cream, Kahlúa, and vodka goes down easy. 

Recipe: Pour 2 ounces vodka and 1 ounce Kahlúa into a lowball glass with slow-melting ice. Add 1 ounce of heavy cream on top, and stir in completely.

Variations:

  • Irish coffee: A cultural variation on a theme, if you will. This whiskey cocktail requires a willingness to keep some well-brewed, hot coffee at the ready and spend time whipping up cream.
  • Black Russian: The White Russian’s predecessor, this easy winter cocktail simply mixes 2 parts vodka to 1 part coffee liqueur. 

Pairs with:

  • For the perfect combo of fruity zing and buttery goodness, try cranberry and walnut shortbread cookies.
  • Chocolate-covered pretzels balance this decadent drink with their salty-sweet crunch.

Hot Toddy

Two steaming hot toddies withe cinnamon sticks and lemon slices

You can warm your guests, body and spirit, with a perennial favorite that’s delightfully simple to make. Neither too dry nor too sweet, the hot toddy is a perfect crowd-pleaser that’s considered a classic winter cocktail for a reason. 

Recipe: Pour 1.5 ounces whiskey into a warmed mug. Add 2 teaspoons of honey, and stir until it dissolves. Pour in boiling water (4–6 ounces to fill a regular-sized mug). You can also add 2 teaspoons of lemon juice if desired. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Variation:

  • Honestly, you can use just about any spirits you want in this beverage. Scotch, bourbon, Irish whiskey, dark rum, and cognac are common variations.
  • Spiced hot toddy: It’s become popular to add in whole spices such as a cinnamon stick, nutmeg, cloves, and star anise to this hot winter cocktail. We say, why not? Just be careful not to overdo it.

Pairs with:

  • Throw in some spice on the side: Try gingerbread squares with zesty lemon glaze.
  • Double down on the comfort with gourmet oatmeal raisin cookies.

Mulled Wine

Two mugs of mulled wine sitting on a counter next to a pot

Another hot winter cocktail, mulled wine has its counterparts in cultures the world over. An added bonus: you can prepare it ahead of time and let it simmer on the stovetop during your party. A fantastic classic that also makes your house smell exceptionally delicious? You can’t go wrong.

Recipe: Choose a fruity but dry red wine as your base. Mix in about 2 cups of apple cider and a slug of brandy. Peel and slice an orange: Add the slices to your mix and save the peel as a garnish. Add in whole cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom pods to taste. Simmer briefly on the stove or in a slow cooker and then leave on a very low heat for self-service. 

Variations:

  • Mulled apple cider: This modern variant plays well with bourbon or spiced rum, or you can leave it alcohol-free for the kids and adult nondrinkers. 
  • Wassail: If you want to go truly old-school (as in, medieval), find one of many traditional recipes of this hot and spiced mix of cider, whole citrus fruits and apples, and spirits like brandy, sherry, and port. 

Pairings:

  • Lay your charcuterie board with artisanal breads, crackers, Roquefort and comté.
  • Pair a classic with a classic: a rich, rum-soaked fruitcake.

The Kid’s Classic: Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple in a tall glass with a cherry garnish

Known as the world’s first mocktail, it doesn’t get any more old school than a Shirley Temple. Tart and invigorating, this kid-approved brew consists of grenadine syrup mixed into either 7Up or ginger ale and topped with a cherry. With a lovely red-orange hue, it’s holiday cheer in a glass that everyone in the family can enjoy. 

Recipe: Add 0.5 an ounce grenadine syrup (homemade is a must) to a tall glass partially filled with ice. Mix in a splash of lemon or lime juice. Pour in ginger ale and stir lightly. Garnish with a cherry. 

Variations:

  • Roy Rogers: Use cola instead of ginger ale. Yeah, it’s that simple. And impressively sweet. 
  • Add some sophistication to this happy-go-lucky favorite with herbal infusions of mint, basil, or rosemary in your homemade grenadine.

Pairings:

  • If you’re planning a special kid’s menu, hit the classics: pigs in a blanket, Christmas Chex mix, and grape jelly meatballs.
  • Options that span the age divide: Mixed fruit on skewers, chips with salsa or guac, and ham and cheese roll-ups.

Runners-up

Still looking for inspiration? Here are a few more classic drinks we don’t want to leave out in the cold: 

  • Manhattan: A combination of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, this iconic cocktail may have preceded the martini and certainly deserves consideration in your lineup.
  • Negroni: Listed by experts as an essential cocktail to master, the Negroni’s 1:1:1 melding of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth is deceptively simple. Don’t skimp on the orange peel, which tastes best scorched. 
  • Amaretto sour: With its notes of marzipan, this could be a perfect holiday potion. You’ll want to avoid an overly sweet experience. Make your own sour mix with fresh lemon juice and the difference will be profound. 
  • Eggnog: This holiday favorite and its cousins in creaminess, horchata and coquito, are a little more time-intensive but remain hugely popular hot winter cocktails. Eggnog also lends itself to endless variations, from cognac to spiced rum. 
  • Hot chocolate: Rich, creamy, a dessert in a mug, this favorite of young and old can stand on its own, pair beautifully with holiday flavors like peppermint or hazelnut, and be pleasantly amplified with a boozy buzz of your choice. A classic winter cocktail for sure.

With this collection of easy and classic winter cocktails, you can give your guests a celebration to remember. Good luck!

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