Classic mint julep cocktail

Classic mint julep cocktail with lime and lemon

I’ve delayed my followup column on bourbon and my recent trip on the Bourbon Trail, in Kentucky, for a couple of weeks to instead bring you some thoughts on New Year’s Eve. If ever there was a year to which we are eager to bid farewell, it is surely 2020. Our celebrations this year will no doubt be restrained by social distancing (a term we didn’t even know New Year’s Eve 2019), mask wearing and for many, a general reluctance to be out and about.

To me, that means a need to insure that our celebratory libations be the most festive yet. Who cares if it’s just the two of you, or even a solo celebrant; we need to bid adieu to this dismal year and raise a glass of hope and optimism (and good spirits) to a New Year!

A lot of us will be planted in front of the television watching what will surely be a strange sight – the vacant streets of Times Square. I have always wondered how those throngs of folks, with NO bathroom facilities, stand out in the often frigid streets for hours – and think they are having fun. And yet – I’ve always wanted to be there. Well, I will be this year, virtually of course. And I’ll be singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of my lungs at the stroke of midnight. It is said this is the most popular song to which very few know the words. Since it’s usually only sung once a year, and on what is unarguably the most intoxicated night of the year, the words are not that important I guess. But in case you are curious …

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, first penned the phrase – though it was a common Scottish sentiment long before his time. Auld Land Syne literally translates to “old long since.” And that, in a roundabout way, means “days gone by.” It was the intent of Burns to get people singing and drinking to days gone by. And, certainly, this is a time to toast good riddance to 2020. Queen Elizabeth II, in 1992, recalled that year as an “annus horribilis” due to the collapse of three royal marriages, an enormous fire at Windsor Castle, and a scandal involving Sarah, the Duchess of York. Royal infidelities, fires, and – yes – even Sarah Ferguson’s antics, pale in comparison to the horrible year Great Britain and the U.S. and, indeed, the world have endured in 2020.

The chorus of Auld Lang Syne exhorts us to “take a cup of kindness yet” – and I think that’s exactly what we should do.

Perhaps with my recent venture into Kentucky bourbon country in mind, I like this wintry take on a mint julep (though with no bourbon).

SPARKLING JULEP

6 mint leaves, plus sprig for serving

¾ oz. simple syrup

3 oz. Champagne or dry sparkling wine

½ oz. cognac

1 dash bitters (such as Angostura)

Lemon twist (for serving)

Muddle mint leaves and simple syrup in a julep cup or rocks glass. Add Champagne, cognac, and bitters. Fill glass part way with crushed ice, and stir gently to combine. Mound more crushed ice on top and garnish with a mint sprig and a lemon twist.

You may want to spice up what might otherwise be a rather bland celebration. This one will certainly do just that.

PICANTE PIGEON

2 jalapeño slices

2 teaspoons sugar

2 oz. tequila reposado

2 oz. fresh pink grapefruit juice

1 oz. fresh lime juice

Grapefruit slice (for serving)

Muddle jalapeño and sugar in a cocktail shaker. Add tequila, grapefruit juice and lime juice; fill shaker with ice. Shake until outside of shaker is frosty, about 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with grapefruit slice.

Helpful hint: taste the jalapeños first; their heat varies enormously.

Finally, just recently came the good and very welcome news, that vaccines against COVID-19 are approved and being administered. This hopefully means 2021 will bring much-needed relief and a return to normalcy. This cocktail’s name reminds me of a past generation’s miracle drug. A new and welcome take on a hot toddy, it won’t cure anything – but it’ll help.

HOT PENICILLIN

2/3 cup honey

1-4 oz. piece ginger, scrubbed, thinly sliced crosswise

8 oz. blended Scotch

6 oz. fresh lemon juice

1 oz. single malt Scotch (optional)

4 pieces candied ginger (garnish)

1. Bring honey, sliced ginger, and 5 cups water to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, stirring occasionally, until honey is dissolved, 20–25 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large measuring glass or a medium bowl (you should have about 4-½ cups); discard solids. Pour honey syrup back into saucepan. Add blended Scotch, lemon juice and single malt Scotch, if using. Heat over medium-low until hot but not boiling.

2. Divide cocktail among four mugs. Run a toothpick or skewer through each piece of candied ginger and set over the mug’s rim to garnish.

This makes four warming and delicious drinks. Perfect for consuming if we happen to have a chilly New Year’s Eve, and if you have three friends or family members “in your bubble” (another phrase unknown in 2019).

All of these are terrific ways to end one year and kick-off the next. But there’s not a thing wrong with a cold glass of bubbly in front of the fire either. And “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years Eve” on the television. This year, along with Dick being a no-show again, so will those misguided crowds. Bless their hearts.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!