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    Getting in the Holiday Spirits

    The holidays are here and one way to make the occasion even more festive is with a specially curated cocktail offering for your guests. There is something about a thoughtful and well-balanced cocktail—the meticulous way it is concocted, the awe in presentation and the coming together of a savory toast—that screams celebration!

    Ever since I was young, vivid memories of gatherings and house parties have lived rent-free in my head. My mother and aunts would use any occasion to invite friends and relatives over to party and there was almost always red solo cups present. Being the oldest cousin, I was called upon not only to babysit but to fetch refills of vodka cranberries. Needless to say, I took more pride in delivering the drinks than I did tending to the kids. I discovered the joy and gift of giving hospitality and have since pursued a career path within the industry.

    Over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to serve in an array of spaces. From humble beginnings giving out samples in the grocery store and working in strobe-lit nightclubs, I have advanced to crafting award-winning cocktails in some of the nation’s most note-worthy restaurants and bars. I’ve even been able to travel and showcase my talents on stages as far away as Lagos Cocktail Week in Nigeria and for icons such as Jay Z and Beyoncé at the Made In America festival.

    Having completed over eight different spirit certifications to expand my knowledge, I’ve come to know that while we like to make cocktails and the contents in the glass, the focus is really about the overall experience they lend to. I craft cocktails to tell stories, bring people together and be an extension of care and passion. The act of hospitality and service is an act of humanity.

    Recipes and essentials
    As part of creating an experience, pay attention to the surroundings and your style. Cocktails say “sophistication”—think James Bond in his tuxedo, with his signature vesper martini—so making your space as tidy as possible helps. And, somehow, your drink is going to taste better if you’re wearing a nice dress or a dress shirt and jacket rather than your PJs!

    As with any new special interest, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity of what’s possible—but you can also just put your toe in the water and try something fairly simple without fear of drowning.

    For specific recipes, Google is your best friend. There are hundreds of easy guides out there. Liquor.com also lets you search for recipes by spirit, preparation style or occasion. I’d also recommend Black Mixcellence: A Comprehensive Guide to Black Mixology (A Cocktail Recipe Book, Classic Cocktails, and Mixed Drinks) by Tamika Hall and Colin Asar-Appiah (which features some of my recipes).

    One of my personal favorite cocktails to make is a Ramos fizz. It’s a classic cocktail that was created by Henry C. Ramos in 1888 and is affectionately named the New Orleans fizz after its birthplace.

    With heavy cream and egg whites added to the orange blossom, water, gin, lemon and lime juices and sugar, it’s an opportunity to show my mixing skills, because it emulsifies and creates an airy, foamy head as you add the soda.

    While there are hundreds of cocktail recipes out there, I like to stick within the seven pillars of classic cocktails. I believe the best ones are simple and use quality ingredients. I don’t overcomplicate ingredients and tend to infuse flavor by making homemade syrups. Simple syrup is equal parts sugar to water and is by far better than any store-bought shelf stable syrup, which tends to have higher sucrose corn syrup and preservatives.

    Another touch I like to incorporate is the type of ice I use. Using clear ice or carved ice not only looks sleek and cool, it also allows the cocktail to dilute slowly and stay chilled as you sip away, because of the increased surface tension.

    The process of making clear ice can be pretty tedious so I just purchase it from a purveyor like Quari or another specialty ice maker. You can achieve a comparable product by using purified water in ice molds. And if you’re making a punch, one large block of ice in the bowl is better than cubes; it melts more slowly.

    Don’t forget the flourishes: it’s not just about making the drink look fun. The garnishes are a very important part of a good cocktail because that’s where the aromatic splash comes from—and your nose experiences the drink before your palette does. Speaking of flourishes, presentation is important. Don’t ruin a nice cocktail by serving it in a plastic red cup! Use a stylish glass or an attractive plastic substitute.

    Like the fruits they sometimes incorporate, cocktails are somewhat seasonal. In the summer, you tend to think fizzier and fruitier—though any toast may require some bubbles, of course. In the winter, you might lean more towards a cocktail that feels warmer—perhaps a barrel-aged spirit that has a woodsy tone.

    Around Christmastime, you might want to try a cocktail flip, which incorporates an egg and yolk: think eggnog, for example, a traditional holiday drink. New Year is more about making a toast, so consider some kind of spritzer.

    Those who are alcohol-free don’t have to miss out on all the fun.

    You can replicate many drinks as [alcohol-free] mocktails, without the “kick” ingredient.

    Depending on where your cocktail experience is happening, also bear these points in mind:

    Hanging at home
    Pick a punch.
    You can’t go wrong with a nice punch, which will typically have a lower alcohol content and so maybe appeal to more people. Plus, there’s a nice group vibe in sharing the same bowl.
    Keep it simple.
    Don’t offer too many options. Not only can it be time-consuming, but also confusing for people to have too many kinds to choose from. Maybe provide one with an aged spirit base and one with a lighter one, by way of contrast.

    Though preparing the drinks can be part of the fun and add to the overall experience, there are some ready-to-drink cocktails that are tasty enough to be a good introduction. Keep in mind they won’t be quite as fresh, of course.

    Out on the town
    Be adventurous.
    Look at the menu and see if something there catches your eye; maybe it’s the ingredients, or even just the name. Give it a try. If you’re not sure, ask your server to make a suggestion or two, or tell them your go-to spirit of choice from which they can make a recommendation.
    Be classy.
    Lots of places are short-staffed these days. Remember that those who are there to serve you have given up time with their family and friends during the holiday season so you can enjoy time with yours. So be patient with them. And a nice tip doesn’t hurt, either.
    Be careful.
    Drink responsibly (advice for wherever you are). Sip and savor. Remember that cocktails typically have a higher alcohol content than a regular glass of beer or wine.

    Lynn House was the first female Black spirit educator I ever saw in that position. She really made me think there might be room for me in what has been a male-dominated industry. Natalie Cardenas is another woman who definitely paved a way; she was my Academy of Spirits and Fine Services instructor, and always so warm and encouraging. And she’s been there with me through my career every step of the way.

    Lex Brown is a certified mixologist and Hennessy ambassador. She co-founded the nonprofit Causing a Stir, to encourage more underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in the hospitality industry.

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