An early glass of Christmas something

'Schofield family Christmas.' A Snowball might have helped. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
‘Schofield family Christmas.’ A Snowball might have helped. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes it’s useful to have some help easing through the early parts of Christmas day. This calls for a special kind of drink, if it’s drink you want. The principles are simple enough, but they require fine balance and nice judgement. Your drink should be apt to the season, it should be mild and undemanding, and it should set you up for the rest of the day. Let’s say that you could drink it mid-morning while unwrapping presents (if you have youngish children—ha!) or jawing harmlessly with the in-laws in that dead time before the food. If it seems unhealthy to be drinking before the sun hits the yardarm, at least it’s social, healthier than everyone withdrawing into their smartphones while one person cooks.

It’s tempting to say to hell with it and crack a bottle of champagne, but champagne often has quite tart notes and is a bit overwhelming early on when your palate is still settling in. Then the fizz seems to open you up and you can quickly find yourself further along than you’d intended, crossing thresholds best left till later. If you can’t wait, a creamy blanc de blancs is probably best.

For a fine, decorous, gently stomach-warming introduction to Christmas, you could drink a glass of Madeira, preferably bual (also ‘boal’), which is sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet. It may well also go with your pudding, while it’s a fine alternative to port after dinner. Barbeito makes some particularly clean, fresh, elegant wines, and I get them from Corks of Cotham and North Street in Bristol. They range from £12.99 to £32.99 and are around port strength (~20% vol). Look around online if you’re not in the area.

The most cheerful and harmless drink of all has to be the dear old Snowball. There was a time when it was vastly popular, if not exactly well regarded, but some time in the 1980s it subsided into ridicule. It is in some indefinable way a ridiculous drink and there’s something not quite adult about it—like Babycham—but there are worse things out there. I think its childish appeal (and it is a sort of benign proto-alchopop) and disreputability actually make it more cheerful and just the thing for the occasion.

The Snowball is made in part from advocaat, an egg liqueur. It’s almost an eggnog, but made up of brandy, sugar, eggs and spices. That’s apt to the season, sure enough. When mixed it’s also as mild and appealing as a Labrador. Finally, and here’s the beauty of the Snowball in this situation—it’s almost impossible to get drunk from them. When I was fourteen a friend and I tried hard, but finished uncomfortably full and eggily bilious, still painfully sober. Nevertheless, there’s still enough alcohol to provoke your stomach into slowing absorption, setting you up for the greater demands to come. It does also, of course, give you a feeling of mild well-being, well short of euphoria but enough to ease the way.

So disreputable is the Snowball that none of my cocktail books has a recipe. This is how I mix it, and I’m none too precious about it, pouring by hand and eye.

  • 1 part advocaat. Any will do, but if you want to do the thing fancy, here’s a way of making it yourself.
  • 3 parts lemonade. Again, no need to be fussy, but avoid the really cheap stuff and any diet versions; they’re over-sweet and have mean, thin, pinched chemical flavours.
  • 1 dash or big squeeze of lime. When I was a bairn it was always Rose’s lime cordial in a Snowball, and that works well, but freshly squeezed juice is subtler and works nicely.

Stir it in a tallish glass over ice. And if you want to give it a little edge, add a splash of vodka; it’s a good addition, though it doesn’t make such a tame drink.

If you can’t bring yourself to drink a Snowball, your dignity or palate won’t allow it, and you want a mixed drink, the White Russian could take care of your problem. It’s seasonal as you like, it’s weirdly good, and the heavy milk or cream may, just may slow absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Like the Snowball, this isn’t a ‘serious’ cocktail and may offend the more precious spirits. Hipster connoisseurs often don’t mind it, though, because of its association with The Big Lebowski.

There are many variations, and milk is often used instead cream. Some use whipping cream and float it on the vodka and liqueur rather than mixing it in. The most basic short (old fashioned) glass version is:

  • 1 part vodka
  • 1 part Kahlua (coffee liqueur; you could also use Tia Maria, and Amaretto almond liqueur isn’t bad, especially if mixed half and half with the coffee)
  • 1 part cream (you can use double)

Stir it over ice. You could shake the cream first. Many people up the proportion of vodka, but here if anything you might want to add a bit of extra milk or cream. Dust them with nutmeg or some other agreeable spice. It’s not as tame as the Snowball, so watch out.

I’ve also tried liqueur coffee, my favourite being mixed brandy, Amaretto and Kahlua, and it’s surprisingly good early in the piece, but it’s a more dangerous opener and harder on the stomach if you had a lively Christmas Eve.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, December 2014)

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