STIR CRAZY: Survival cocktail ideas for stormy winter nights

Seven bottles, no expiration dates, five drinks: Adam McDowell on stocking up for deepest winter

The eternally misguided members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to include The Lighthouse in the best-picture nominees of 2019. Still, it really is a terrific film, and if there were awards for the best drinking movies, this one would be positively drenched in accolades.

The Lighthouse is essentially a movie about cabin fever: A pair of lighthouse keepers (or “wickies”), played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, develop a paranoid wariness of each other while stuck on a stormy rock off the coast of (I suppose) New England. They despise each other in every scene in which they are not drinking, and they’re pals in most of the ones in which they indulge.

Well well, I thought, watching the wickies get tired and emotional pounding straight spirit (I guess rum) outta their old-timey mugs: If this isn’t an analogue for Canadian relationship dynamics circa January, what is?

Yarr, here’s to failin’ the Bechdel Test!

Hate to spoil the best gag in the movie, but there’s a scene in which Dafoe persuades Pattinson to help dig up some emergency “provisions,” which turns out to be a crate full of more booze.

Which prompts me to ask: What’s your plan for being laid up by a storm? What should you keep in your pantry in case of emergency?

It’s nice to have booze around that can be consumed without any fuss or refrigeration, I mean, beyond the obvious red wine and whisky. My emergency cocktail kit consists of Benedictine, Cognac, creme de menthe, gin, Rose’s Lime Cordial, blended Scotch, Drambuie.

Stick them in the cupboard and you’ll survive many a stormy night. (Or, as my co-editor Christine points out, they’ll be handy in case of a nuclear incident; you can put them next to the iodine.) You won’t need fancy mixing gear, garnishes — you can even skip the ice if you’re too hard up to have any.

And while you’re waiting out the worst of winter (nuclear or otherwise), what will you make, and how? Read on!

Benedictine and brandy

Notes: Orangey-herbal Benedictine plus Cognac is a match made in heaven — or at least a monastic French setting. And come to think of it, if those monks can get along without killing each other, so can you and your partner, even in deadest winter, when you’ve run out of Netflix series you both like.

Method: Combine a 50-50 (ish) mix of Benedictine and Cognac in a snifter or rocks glass. Add ice, or a splash of water, and serve.

Benny and hot

Method: Another wintery use for Benedictine: Add about an ounce and a half of Benedictine to a mug or heatproof glass, and top up with an equal (or greater) amount of hot water to taste. Optional: add twist and/or squeeze of lemon or orange.

Notes: I might never have heard of this one, except as a young feller I worked in a pub in the English county of Lancashire, where the Benny and hot is a classic old-man drink. It’s a tasty concoction that’ll warm you down to the cockles of your heart. Heck, deeper, even — the sub-cockles.

Old-man drink, ye say? We be listening.


Notes: This one boasts actual nautical cred: No one can say for certain how the name originated, but the notion of combining gin with sweetened lime juice — Rose’s Lime Cordial specifically — seems to have originated with the (British) Royal Navy.

Anyway, a gimlet is what you prepare when you’re sad and an actual tropical drink seems like too much effort.

Method: Let’s go with Raymond Chandler's 1953 hardboiled crime novel The Long Goodbye. Detective Philip Marlowe strikes up a friendship with unfortunate Englishman Terry Lennox, who bemoans the difficulty of finding a proper gimlet in Los Angeles: "We sat in the corner bar at Victor's and drank gimlets. 'They don't know how to make them here,' [Terry] said. ... 'A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.’ ”

For sugar-averse 21st-century palates, I would say a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio of gin to Rose's will work better than Lennox’s fifty-fifty. Shake well with ice, strain, and serve in a chilled glass. Or just mix warm in a dented grog mug, whatever.


Notes: I am happy to discover that my National Post column on the beauty of the stinger is still online eight years later; I sang its praises well enough then.

– 2¼ ounces good brandy
– ¾ ounce crème de menthe

Chill a cocktail glass. Add both ingredients to a shaker filled halfway with cracked (broken) ice, shake hard, and strain into the glass. No garnish.

Rusty nail

Notes: Friends, I’m saving the best for last here. Consisting of Scotch (already great on its own) and Drambuie (which is, like, spiced Scotch), a rusty nail is a nuanced, if forgotten, pleasure — a cabin fever cocktail par excellence.

Method: An American of our acquaintance recommends 2 oz. good blended Scotch with 1/2 oz. Drambuie — combine with ice in a rocks glass, stir, add optional lemon twist.

Now relax, think of the coming of spring, and for goodness sake try not to kill anyone while you’re stuck in that bunker you call home.


FORGET DRY JANUARY: Try the Three/Four System™

A moderation system, designed by Dr. Christine Sismondo

By law, all drinks writers are obliged to start the New Year with a column about laying off the sauce.

None of us really want to do this—we just do it for the clicks. What we really want to tell you is that January is a great drinking month, even aside from the many whisky-soaked Burns Suppers clustered around the 25th.

What’s so great about drinking in January? For starters, you have the bars to yourself. If you, like me, aren’t exactly thrilled when all the people who found this place on Yelp turn out in droves, January is when you want to be doing a cocktail crawl. You’ll have the undivided attention of bartenders and publicans, who will appreciate you coming out in the lean period, which lasts until Valentine’s Day, the first big amateur night of the year.

Another thing that’s great about drinking in January is that it’s January. People practically invented whisky and cognac for getting through the winter months, so any attempt to resist brown liquor at this time of year is literally fighting against the way we’ve been hard-wired. That’s just science.

Finally, the whole idea of a Dry January is suspect. In the diet world, they say, “Don’t go on any diet that you can’t maintain for the rest of your life.” Now ask yourself this: Is Dry January sustainable? Case closed.

So, instead of embarking on a foolish dry period, consider adopting my patented, expert-tested doctor-approved* Three/Four System™ for moderation that may or may not last into February. Or, possibly, for life.

The Three/Four System™ is simple. On Week One of the New Year, you only get to have drinks on three days—four days of no booze at all. Any days you like, and not necessarily in a row. Week Two, reverse it and take three days off drinking. Alternate weeks until the end of the month. Consider continuing this in February. Or forever. It’s remarkably sustainable, except during the following events: Birthday Months, Vacations, Christmas Holidays and Summer.

You may ask: Why did I come up with the Three/Four System™? Because, in my opinion, even though the concept of a “detox” is hogwash, cleanses, drying out, elimination diets and all those other GOOPy things do have value—just not in the way they’re usually sold. I think it’s really important to shake things up every once in a while and see which of your habits are insidious and which of your rituals are actually still enjoyable.

Take my pre-dinner fino sherry thing, for example. It got so Al had to go to the Tio Pepe store a couple of times a week. And, at that point, am I really savouring the joys of aperitivo hour? Or just catching a buzz while I’m cooking dinner? The Three/Four System™ is the perfect method to sort that stuff out, even convincing me to give up sherry for January. Entirely. Even on my days on.

You might also ask: How did I come up with this cunning plan? Some of the inspiration for the Three/Four System™ came from an essay by legendary Esquire fiction editor L. Rust Hills called “How To Cut Down on Drinking and Smoking Quite So Much.” I can’t link to it online (I have it in a real book made of paper), so I’m going to quote a passage instead:

“I had one hell of a system once for cutting down on drinking so much. I was sharing a big summer house with a lot of city people, and I came to realize I’d been getting bombed every night. I was there all the time, the others would come up just weekends or on their vacations. Anyhow, I devised this incredibly clever system: the idea was, I’d plan ahead just exactly what I would do drinking-wise for each and every day of a four-day cycle. On what became known as a First Day, I wouldn’t drink at all—nothing, not a single drink…”

On a “Second Day,” Hills allowed himself a drink before and after dinner. Moderate drinking was allowed on the “Third Day” and, on the final “Fourth Day,” he could do anything he wanted.

After that, the hilarity ensues. I’m not going to spoil it, but the trouble starts up when he starts trading off days to accommodate special occasions and unexpected benders, which I’ll admit is a built-in hazard in the Three/Four System™. I could solve this with proprietary points cards for The System or a Three/Four App and liver tracker wristband, but we’re all grown-ups, right?

Anyhow, there are few takeaways here. First, Dry January isn’t sustainable for drinking people or bartenders, so we don’t approve. Second, we should all read that L. Rust Hills essay. People just don’t write like that anymore. If you want to buy it, I ran across it in an anthology called Drinking, Smoking and Screwing. Good little read.

Third, if you want a break from pre-dinner sherry, follow my lead and have a Lucano and Fever-Tree tonic instead. Or any amaro with any tonic. We’re calling it: A&T is the drink of the decade, a 10-year span that I’m sincerely hoping will come to be known as the Snoring Twenties. I’ve had enough of interesting times!

*By doctor-approved, we mean a Doctor of Philosophy gave it her stamp of approval, not an actual Medical Doctor.

Do we have to tell you which one Rust Hills is?


Christine Sismondo brings you some gift ideas to make the celebrations really pop

Why do we have to give people presents?  

We all know we all have too much stuff. And we’re all trying to be mindful of over-consumption. It can be hard, though, to convince everyone in the family that it’s a great idea to give up gifts altogether. Why? Because they do serve a purpose, namely, as entertainment on the day of.

Here, then, are several entertaining gifts, designed to provoke conversation, inspire social media posts, or liven up the scene with a group activity like champagne sabrage—for a full day of fun.   

Breakfast Drinks

Here’s a paradox for you: Most bartenders will tell you it’s uncivilized to drink a Caesar at any time other than breakfast. Most of the grown-up people around you, however, will tell you it’s a really bad idea to adopt breakfast-drinking rituals.  

Fortunately, there’s one time of year when people won’t frown on your day-drinking habits—the Christmas holidays. And, since you can only drink Caesars once a year, it’s important to make it count.

My choice? Walter Craft Caesar’s Holiday Caesar Mix ($8.95), the lobster stock edition, which you could gift to someone, along with a bottle of Spirit of York Aquavit, early in the day, so everyone can enjoy aquavit-lobster Caesars. I don’t know that I can taste the lobster, but the texture is spot-on perfect and it’s delicious, natural-tasting and complex, with just enough kick. Act fast though, since it’s already sold out online, but, I’m assured, is still in stock in stores across the country.

Afternoon lull

If you gift a bottle of Empress 1908 Gin ($49.95) and some tonics to someone at the exact right moment (while everyone’s waiting for the turkey) this colour-changing gin will liven the party right back up. Trust me, it works, largely because people love to watch and video this gin’s magical transformation from deep blue to a lovely hue of pink when the tonic is poured in.

Table Wine

Serve up both Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2017 ($44.95) and Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir, (also $44.95) two brilliant wines whose releases last month were widely-celebrated in Ontario wine circles. Why? Acclaimed winemaker Thomas Bachelder is once again at the helm of this single vineyard project, which makes use of old vines from a very special piece of land in the Jordan Bench of Niagara. These are celebratory wines to go with a memorable meal, both pairing well with fowl. Alternatively, if you have an oenophile in the fam who likes to drink local, they’ll certainly appreciate being gifted the pair.

After Dinner

This year, Dr. Bill Lumsden released a truly novel expression, Glenmorangie Allta Private Edition No. 10 ($177.30), a whisky fermented with wild yeasts cultivated from a barley field near the distillery in Tain, Scotland. We hear a lot about wild yeasts used in wine, beer or cider, but very little in spirits production, since whisky makers pretty much always use proprietary yeasts because, other than wood, yeast is the most important tool distillers have to impart flavour. This one’s got a lot of that classic vanilla, biscuit, orange peel and sweet heat we associate with Glenmorangie, but this one also has a little bit of tropical fruit and ginger—absolutely delicious.

And, for something a little less intellectually challenging, Lagavulin has recently released an “Offerman Edition,” ($119.95), an 11-year old Islay whisky that announces its smoky presence in the room the moment you remove the cap. Given Offerman’s typical on-screen persona, it’s not as much of a peat bomb as you might expect and, instead, is a restrained blend of peat and honey. And let’s get real here, somebody you know wants this for Christmas. 

The Show-Stopper

Anyone who knows how to sabre a champagne bottle understands you don’t really need a special tool—a sturdy utility knife will do the job just fine. But, if you really want to splash out, we did spot a fancy stainless steel Champagne Sabre at Toronto’s Cocktail Emporium for a mere $140. Gift it to someone with a bottle of Ruinart Brut Champagne ($88.95) and cap off the night with a little excitement.

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