As a longtime cocktail enthusiast and the creator of the home bar blog Craft + Cocktails, Ashley Rose Conway has designed scores of cocktails. So when it came to hosting a holiday happy hour for friends, developing original cocktails was a no-brainer. At the her party, she served five unique creations: Winter Sangria, an Allspice Milk Punch, the Fig New Fashioned, her Ginger Royale, and the cheekily-named Pomegranate in a Pear Tree. With so much mixology experience under her belt, we asked her to walk us through the process of creating a festive signature cocktail. The key is to go step by step: ” I try not to go through and make a whole drink at once, because if it doesn’t taste great, then that’s a whole glass of ingredients wasted,” she says. Point taken.
Step 1: Think about what spirits your guests would like.
“I generally think of guests before my own tastes. What base spirits do they enjoy? Do they like brown spirits like bourbon or rum, or white spirits like vodka?” Ashley says. Also, consider whether the event has a theme, and run with that. “I might think of the color of a drink—color can be very important.”
Step 2: Pair the spirit base with a seasonal ingredient or two.
After she’s chosen the spirit itself, Ashley likes to highlight seasonal ingredients. “I think of what I see at the farmers’ market,” she says. Right now, that might be herbs like rosemary, mint and basil, or fresh fruit like pomegranates, citrus and apples. Here’s where glassware might factor in: “If you’re serving something in a coupe glass, you can’t have a lot of soda, like you might in a highball,” she points out. Tall glassware lends itself to refreshing, fruity, carbonated drinks, while rocks glasses and coupes often work better for drinks that are more spirit-driven.
Step 3: Try adding one or two other ingredients.
After starting with a base spirit and a seasonal ingredient or two, Ashley starts to experiment with adding in one or two other alcohol-based elements, such as liqueurs, amari, or vermouth. She goes with her gut: “Sometimes, as you’re tasting, you might think to yourself, ‘This other ingredient would be great in here.'” She knows she’s hit on something when all of the elements of flavor are balanced: “The spirit doesn’t overwhelm any other ingredients. Sweetness helps meld everything together. Acidity tones down the spirit just a little bit.”
Step 4: Finish with a nice garnish.
“A good garnish will take a ho-hum drink up a few notches,” Ashley declares. Look for something with a scent that will complement what’s in the glass, like the rosemary sprig garnish in Ashley’s Pomegranate in a Pear Tree recipe. “Your smell is a large portion of what you taste,” she says, adding, “a lot of times the smell from a garnish adds a lot of flavor, even if it’s not in the actual drink.”
Step 5: Don’t forget the name.
“Naming is one of the hardest parts of making a cocktail for me,” the cocktail blogger admits. For inspiration, look to ingredients’ origins: “Sometimes I like naming based on the ingredients in the cocktail, or getting playful and taking into account where the spirit’s made,” she suggests. “For example, if there’s rum in the cocktail, you can play on something Caribbean-based.”
Step 6: Put it all into action!
Ashley took us through the play-by-play of how her sparking wine cocktail, the Ginger Royale, came together. “The Ginger Royale is a play off the kir royale cocktail,” she says. “Champagne is used for holiday celebrations, so it’s something everyone will have and be familiar using. Crème de cassis is in a lot of classic drinks, and it adds a beautiful reddish-purple color that’s perfect for the holidays. Lemon juice brought acidity, because both the crème de cassis and Champagne are a little bit on the sweet side. Muddling ginger gives the cocktail a bit of spiciness and warmed things up a bit. And bitters can tie somewhat disjointed ingredients together because they have so many different flavors,” she explains. To finish, she added a float of pomegranate seeds for color, crunch and festive flair.
To see more, including the holiday cocktails that were paired with these crostini, head to our Open Kitchen: Cocktails + Crostini page.