Christmas is coming and there are loads of tasks you need to start thinking about now in order to be well prepared for the festivities ahead. There are the regular ones, like deciding what presents to buy everyone; the ones you always forget, such as pre-ordering the turkey; and, perhaps the most important task – to be carried out with the utmost attention to detail – is deciding what drinks to stock up on.
To help you on your way we’ve come up with this handy guide of sippable and gluggable treats, each fulfilling a specific role in the festive drinking calendar that you might otherwise overlook until it’s too late. Each one has been personally tested by at least one of us to guarantee its fitness for purpose and, as we steadily test our way through more products we’ll add to this list.
For now, the turkey can wait…
The Festive Fizz
Langham Wine Estate, Culver NV
Congratulations to Langham Wine Estate who recently scooped the coveted IWSC award for Best Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year, seeing off over 700 competitors including some of the most famous names in Champagne.
We visited the Dorset vineyard a few years back and were mightily impressed, and think there’s no better booze to add some fizz to this year’s festivities. The all conquering Blanc de Blancs has, unsurprisingly, already sold out on the vineyard’s website so load up on the equally impressive Culver NV instead. But hurry, we reckon those Champagne producers will be battling over the last bottles to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.
The Red Wine for Cheese
La Luminaille, Rasteau Luminaris 2017
Besides gorging on Christmas dinner, puddings, cakes, chocolates and other artery-threatening foods, we’ll also be scoffing our fair share of cheese. And when we do, we’ll want a quality red wine to sip alongside it.
We recently explored the wines of the Côtes du Rhône in detail and now can’t get enough of the stuff, so our cheese companion of choice will be a Rasteau. This village, in the southern part of the Rhône, is celebrating ten years of being an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for wine, which is a good sign of its quality.
The first bottle we’ll be tucking into is La Luminaille, a fruity and spicy number that isn’t overly heavy but won’t get overawed by the mighty wheel of stinky Camembert we’ve got lined up. Or the vast slab of Stilton. Or the nettle-coated Yarg. Or the Welsh Bomber. Etc…
The aperitif to keep on standby
Lillet Rosé Wine-Based Aperitif 17%
Aperitifs are slowly coming back in fashion, although less as the traditional pre-dinner snifter and more as a cocktail ingredient. If you feel like venturing into the world of aperitifs then this bottle is one to try. Crafted in France by Lillet, who have been blending and aromatising wines since 1887, it’s very much an aperitif for the modern age. Keep a bottle on standby and try it in a spritz, with tonic, as an Aperol substitute in a Negroni or simply enjoy a neat nip before dinner. Before long you’ll wonder what took you so long to join the aperitif bandwagon.
The Wine for a Sneaky Tipple
Lubanzi Red Blend, Chenin Blanc and Rosé Bubbles
If you’re in need of a sneaky glass of wine when no-one else is in the mood, then you don’t want to be plunging the corkscrew into a full bottle. Instead, pop off the ring-pull from one of these 250ml cans by South African producer Lubanzi.
The Red Blend is super-fresh and fruity tasting while the Chenin Blanc is a bright and fruity white, with a lovely dry finish. We think the pick of the bunch is the sparkling Rosé Bubbles – a crisp and light wine with hints of strawberries and raspberries. Open the fridge, move aside the lager and make room for a few cans of this – you’ll be extremely glad you did when the mood for wine strikes.
The Beer for Everyone
Krombacher Pils Mini Keg
If you can’t get to the pub this Christmas, then recreate the busy bar atmosphere by getting yourself a keg of beer instead. We’ve done a bit of work for German beer aces Krombacher over the past few years and are rejoicing that they’ve introduced a keg of their Pilsner for home guzzling.
It’s a mighty 5 litre can that, once tapped, will last up to 30 days and provide us with deliciously fresh and creamy Pilsner. Its clean taste and classic Pils hopping make it the kind of beer you can tuck into whenever the mood strikes – it’s great with all kinds of food and suitable for a prolonged drinking session while you’re arguing with the folks over whose turn it is to do the washing up. Prosit!
The British beer gift set
Butcombe brewery four bottle gift set
Butcombe Brewery is in our neck of the woods, so its beer is the regular choice in many of our favourite local Somerset pubs and is well stocked by local shops. Thankfully for us we like the beer a lot, so would highly recommend this mixed set of four bottles as a gift for your beer drinking pals.
Original, Gold, Rare Breed and Goram IPA are all what we would describe as traditional British beers brewed for the 21st century. They’re easy to drink, with a solid malt base and enough hopping to make each one distinctive and on-style without overpowering the rest of the good work done by the brewers. If you live in our neck of the woods you’ll probably know all about them already; if not, then they’re well worth discovering.
The beers for Dry January
Big Drop, The Big Hello Pack
Dry January is now an established part of the post-Christmas calendar, a month when we’re encouraged to do our bodies and minds a favour by abstaining from booze (or at least cutting down on our intake). One key reason why this dry time has been taken up by lots more people in recent years is due to the quality of alcohol free drinks now available. And in the world of beer, Big Drop is one of the leaders in the field.
Next January will see the brewery launch ‘The Big Hello Pack, a box of eight beers containing their four most popular 0.5% beers. These are the light and refreshing Uptime Craft Lager, the creamy Galactic Milk Stout, the super citrussy Paradiso IPA and, our favourite, Pine Trail Pale Ale, an American Pale Ale that has lip smacking hoppy flavours and a delicious bitter finish.
But these aren’t the only ace beers Big Drop produce, so peruse their online shop and stock up on your favourite sounding brews – and you won’t miss the booze at all come January.
The winter warming rum
Lost Years Four Island Rum, 40%
Not many drinks can see off a nip of winter’s chill quite as efficiently as rum. And for extra cold busting properties, a rum-based winter cocktail is hard to beat.
As to what rum to plunder into your Toddy, Hot Buttered Rum or Maple Winter Warmer we would like to suggest Lost Years Four Island Rum. Not only does this Caribbean blend have the warming festive flavours of cinnamon and orange, along with a smooth caramel sweetness and prickly, peppery spice, but when you buy a bottle you’ll also be helping to save sea turtles.
These special creatures are under threat and, through a donation of sales, the makers of Lost Years reckon that every bottle sold can save up to ten baby turtles. As for the Lost Years name, this refers to one of nature’s great mysteries. After hatching, the baby turtles disappear into the Caribbean waves and won’t be seen again for up to a decade. Drink rum, stay warm, save the turtles – everyone’s a winner.
The luxury gin
Procera Green Dot Gin Gin
If you want to flex your gin muscles into new territories then might we suggest Kenya? Procura Gin is named after the Southern Hemisphere’s only indigenous variety of juniper – Procera – and the distillery lays claim to being the first to use it in gin production.
In their green dot gin, presented in a stunning hand blown bottle with a hand carved stopper, the juniper is given every opportunity to flourish, with both fresh and dried berries used. It has a creamy sweetness to it with fresh pine and some prickly, woody spice to warm it up. Each bottle also comes with a few pinches of African salt blended with the gin’s botanicals to bring out even more flavour complexity from those Procera berries. A Kenyan gin treasure that would make a luxurious gift or a special festive treat for yourself.
The bottle to take to a party
Malibu Coconut Liqueur, 21%
You’ve been invited to a party and you’ve got to bring some booze. You want something that you will enjoy, the other guests will enjoy, and might bring some extra excitement to the occasion. So summon some 1980s nostalgia with a bottle of Malibu. If it’s a long time since you last tried it, then let us remind you: it’s a sweet rum, flavoured with coconut. Mix it with cola. Mix it with pineapple juice. Serve it with ice and a slice of lime. Or invent your own cocktail by adding a shot to any other spirits on the drinks table. There aren’t many drinks that have such a good party vibe as Malibu.
The multi-purpose brandy
Bardinet VSOP Brandy, 36%
DON’T FORGET THE BRANDY! This essential Christmas booze is often overlooked until it’s too late, so you might end up stirring whisky into your custard, pouring vodka over your Christmas pudding, and retiring to the drawing room for a post-lunch snifter with a glass of tequila. And that just won’t do.
Should you be seeking even more uses for your bottle of brandy then Bardinet, French brandy makers par excellence, have sent us some festive cocktail suggestions to celebrate the launch of their newly redesigned packaging. These include a Bardinet & Ginger (as simple as it sounds) which they’ve topped with our favourite garnishing herb, rosemary, and the one we’ll be making – the ‘Bardinet Christmas Stocking.’
For this you stir together 35ml Bardinet Brandy, 10ml Orange Liqueur and 5ml caramel syrup with ice, strain into a champagne flute and top with sparkling wine. Even more reason not to forget the brandy…
The aged Cognac for winding down
Delamain Pale & Dry XO Cognac
When the Christmas Day chaos finally winds down, the kids are in bed and the dishwasher has been loaded for the eighth, and final, time you’ll breathe a sigh of relief and seek something to help you put your feet up. More booze at first seems like a crazy idea, but the reward of something special is actually just what you need.
Delamain Pale & Dry XO Cognac has seen a century of Christmases and is one of the most admired Cognacs around. It’s made from the region’s ‘Grande Champagne’ grapes and is ‘extra old’ (hence the ‘XO’, which means the youngest cognac in the blend is at least 10 years old), with its ‘Pale & Dry’ labelling indicating a paler than usual colour, from using old casks and containing no additional sweetener.
This Cognac oozes elegant sophistication from its floral aroma to the slight leatheriness of the taste. Complexity is ramped up with soft fruits, vanilla and subtle spices but it’s all gentle enough to help with the unwinding process. A class act.
The cocktail liqueur
White Heron British Framboise, 15%
Raspberry liqueurs have always been right up there in our ‘favourite liqueurs list’. It was one of the first recipes we put up on the site, and one we spent a long time perfecting for our book Brew it Yourself, introducing thyme to the infusion.
We like to sup it neat and use it for lending a vibrant red colour and tart fruity flavour to numerous cocktails, but perhaps its best use is to sink a measure into a glass of fizz when we’re pulling out all the stops to impress over Christmas.
It’s getting a bit too late in the year to make your own for Christmas but thankfully liqueur aces White Heron have recently released a British Framboise, made using the finest Herefordshire raspberries. It’s vibrantly red and loaded with sweet and tart fruity raspberry flavours – we don’t know where they got their recipe from but it’s most definitely a winner.
The instant cocktail
With lockdown limiting our ability to go to bars there has been a huge surge in businesses offering pre-mixed cocktail delivery services for the home sipper. One such supplier is NIO Cocktails, an Italian brand who have impressed us with their letter-box friendly slimline packs of cocktails.
The list of cocktails they provide is long and mostly comprises classics (we were mightily impressed by their Negroni) with each one well made from good ingredients. They’ve also thrown in a few Christmas specials, such as an Apple Rum Punch (with a hint of absinthe), that are equally simple serves of top notch quality. And there are even a few options for the dry drinker.
Order online by selection a build your own box of 3, 6 or 9 cocktails, or plump for one of their luxury sets instead. Christmas may be a time for sharing and giving, but it’s also a time to be lazy, so if you fancy a few quality cocktails without the effort that goes into making them then NIO certainly fits the bill.
The Irish whiskey for cocktail making
Samuel Gelston’s Blended Irish Whiskey
If you’re looking for an affordable whiskey then Ireland tends to offer better value than other countries, and within the range of Irish whiskeys, few brands are more bargainous than Samuel Gelston’s. The distillery’s Blended Irish whiskey is a top notch choice for an incredibly low price, and perfect for cocktails that go with the festive craic.
The brand has come up with a few cocktail suggestions of their own, including Gelston’s Gold Rush, which we think is worth the advance prep required. To make, you’ll first need to spice up some honey by adding a chilli or two (or dried flakes) to runny honey and allowing it to infuse for a few days. You’ll then need to put 10ml of this ‘hot honey’ into a shaker with 50ml Samuel Gelston’s Blended Irish whiskey, 20ml fresh lime juice, 30ml fresh orange juice and some ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass with a salted rim and garnish with a slice of burnt orange. And if that does get you jigging with Irish glee, nothing will.
The cocktail kit
Drinks by Post, Modern Christmas Collection
If you’re keen on mixing up some festive cocktails but don’t want to (a) research what’s required and (b) go out and buy a list of booze ingredients longer than a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, then a cocktail kit is for you.
Drinks by Post has a range of kits, with our favourite being their Modern Christmas Collection. In this you’ll be able to knock out such delicious drinks as a Winter Aperol Spritz, Passionfruit Martini and Gin Hot Toddy – each one effortlessly simple and will make you look like a bartending champ.
The liqueur for the curious
Cooper King Berry and Basil Liqueur
If you’re the kind of person who likes to try out interesting flavour combinations at Christmas then we think we’ve found something for you. Cooper King Distillery has blended its ace juniper gin with local Yorkshire raspberries and basil to create a liqueur that is fruity, herby and very sophisticated tasting.
We think it will provide a delicious pink twist to just about any gin cocktail, including a G&T, besides being a good shot to drop into sparkling wine or – dare we say – a decent fizzy cider. See it as a posh Yorkshire variation on the classic French Chambord and you’ll soon get the idea of what it can be used for…
The cocktail to learn
The Red Lion
Christmas is the perfect time to flex your shaking muscles with a new cocktail. We’ve been trying our hands at The Red Lion, an easy orange sipper based around gin and Grand Marnier. Fancy a go? Then read our recipe here…
The non-alcoholic option
Saicho Sparkling Cold Brewed Tea
Give your liver a break with an elegant fizzy tea* from Saicho. We dig the delicate, floral flavours and fizzy tannic twang – perfect for firing-up flagging taste buds caused by a mince pie/sprout/sausage overload. Saicho comes in three flavours – Jasmine, Darjeeling and our toasty, nutty favorite, Hojicha.
Get them here!
The cider for everyone
Kentish Pip Mixed Case
We always have plenty of cider to summon throughout the festive period, mainly because we make it ourselves but also because, living in Somerset, it’s hard to avoid buying extra bottles from the excellent craft producers all around us. But while our cider is always a hit with our West Country cider drinking chums, there are some guests who find our choices a little bit ‘agricultural’ for their palates, accustomed as they are to big brand fruit ciders.
To keep everyone happy we suggest looking East to Kentish Pip and their exceptional range of ciders. They have the full, rich apple flavours that we love but there’s less of the heavily tanic, barnyard vibe that some of our local ciders possess. Plump for a mixed case of 12 and you’ll get three Medium Cry Ciders – the clean and crisp Craftsman and High Diver along with our favourite, the slightly juicer Skylark (and, at 5.5%, it’s stronger than the other two at 4.8%).
The remaining quarter of the collection is Kentish Pip’s fruit cider Forager which, at 4%, is more manageable for those cider novices. The hedgerow berries added to the mix give it the extra fruity appeal that some folk crave, but the quality of the apples still shines through, making it something that both we and our guests can enjoy.
The booze-filled crackers
White Possum, Spirited Xmas Crackers (Gin)
In a bid to rid the environment of plastic tat we wholly endorse crackers that have abandoned more familiar plastic trinkets in favour of booze. There are now so many on the market that Rich recently rounded up a load for the Independent, testing bang mechanisms and jokes until he was so deaf he could no longer hear his own laughter.
This set of six gin-filled crackers from White Possum arrived too late for his review, which is a shame because they would be serious contenders for the top spot. They not only look and sound the part, but they contain the requisite paper hats and even the jokes are of an unusually high standard.
And as for the booze? It’s great. Six 50ml bottles of top notch gin from the likes of Aber Falls, Brokers and Sipsmith. Cracking stuff.
The sparkling alternative
Pearl, Sparkling Saké, Junmai Daiginjo
If you’re in the mood for some festive fizz but fancy a change from wine then line up your fluted glasses for some sparkling saké instead.
This bottle-fermented beauty comes from a traditional Japanese brewery founded in 1790 and uses farm-grown rice polished to the highest class, ensuring it’s of top quality. It’s slightly cloudy and can seem a little unusual to the inexperienced saké drinker at first – but the light prickly fizz soon sends the booze to your knees and you’ll quickly rejoice in its crisp orchard fruit flavours and its creamy, sherry-esque feel. A whisper of a dry finish will soon have you delving in for more and you might decide to never trouble a fizzy grape again.
Note: Each one of these products has been sent for us to review and we have chosen our favourites from the many suggestions we receive each week. We use affiliate links on some of our product recommendations.
* Did we mention we’ve written a book about tea? It’s due out in March in the UK, but lucky American readers can get it RIGHT NOW.