A holiday meal is a marathon, not a sprint. When it comes to food, we’ve got this down: We protect our plate space like precious real estate and think steps ahead to make sure we’ve saved room for dessert. But when it comes to holiday drinking, this simple lesson often goes overlooked. I understand the desire to reach for something strong and stirred, something you’d enjoy by a fireplace. But for me, the holiday dinner table is not the place for that. Instead, a sessionable cocktail is the move.
There are plenty of nonalcoholic and low-ABV recipes you can follow (in particular, the traditionally low-proof Old Hickory is worth mixing up), but you can also turn any of your favorite classics sessionable with a few easy methods.
One way to do this is to invert the measures of your base spirit and modifier. In Punch’s Session Manhattan, rye whiskey and sweet vermouth switch places and are complemented by a touch of sherry and dry vermouth. This is ideal for fans of the strong and stirred: You can still have your warming, wintery Manhattan, just at a lower octane.
You can also make a direct substitution, as in this low-proof Negroni from Tristan Willey, where dry manzanilla sherry stands in for gin. While the drink’s profile is different from that of a traditional Negroni, the spirit of the classic is still there. Plus, something like minerally, acidic manzanilla feels right at home with a meal; as bartender Andrew Meltzer once described it, sherry in cocktails is like “bringing a pinch of salt to the table.”
But there’s another method, one that’s not only the most customizable but also probably the most fun: Just add bubbles. With any bubbly topper, you can elongate a drink, turning spirit-forward cocktails into bubbly highballs. For example: A hard-hitting dirty Martini transforms into something just as briny and savory but now also refreshing — key during a long-haul dinner — in its sparkling form. For the holidays, there’s also just something about bubbles that signals celebration.
Drinks made with this technique are endlessly mutable, down to the classic you choose as the base and the bubbles you use to make it pop. In a highball-ified White Negroni, quinine-rich tonic water makes sense, as it harmonizes with the drink’s bitter, gentian notes, but you could also use coconut water and soda water to top off a tropical drink, or ginger beer to add spice to a richer, whiskey-based cocktail.
If you’re hosting a dinner, the highball move works especially well, too. You can prebatch a few ingredients (sans bitters or other aromatics that might expand in a batch) before guests arrive, keeping the mix refrigerated until you’re ready to serve. When the time comes, all you need to do is add a few ounces of the cocktail mix to everyone’s glass before topping with your preferred mixer of choice, or letting guests pick their own topper in the spirit of personalization.
Of course, there will always be room for the tried-and-true Old Fashioneds, Boulevardiers, and all of the other booze-only drinks this holiday season. But having a low-proof alternative will always be welcome at my holiday table for a host of reasons, not least of which is because it’s fun to subvert the expectations of what a special-occasion drink ought to be. Turn your Negroni on its head, top your Manhattan with tonic; there are no rules at my home bar so long as there are good drinks.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Photo assistant: Eric Fortier