No matter what holidays you celebrate in December, you’re likely to have favorite flavors and aromas (and favorite dishes you associate with this time of year. Adding those flavors to your holiday syrups can be easy to do to add those seasonal flavors to your favorite cocktail.
As I was putting together this week’s article on orange and baking-spice infused Christmas Syrup for Cocktails I realized I had more ideas for infused spirits and syrups than I had days left in the month.
Maybe you’ll have time to make a few with flavors special to you, too!
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How to Infuse Holiday Syrups and Spirits
The good news is that infusing both syrups and spirits is incredibly easy to do at home. It’s also a great way to play with flavors and experiment with new combinations. For the full explanation of how to infuse spirits, see my article on infusing bourbon or this one on infusing Campari. Or if you prefer playing with syrups, go to this guide to everything you need to know about simple syrups.
For a short how to, here are the basics.
To infuse a simple syrup think about if you’re working with a woody spice or a whole spice, like cinnamon, rosemary, lavender or nutmeg, or if you’re working with a more delicate spice, dried flowers, teas, fresh herbs.
When infusing whole spices or woody herbs, put the syrup and spice on heat at a low simmer for about 10-15 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the syrup steep as it cools to room temperature, checking every hour or so to see if the syrups flavor is right.
When infusing more delicate herbs, heat the syrup to steaming, take it off the heat, add the herb and then let the syrup cool to room temperature. More delicate herbs don’t need the same amount of time under heat that woody bark or whole spice does.
Infusing with spirits is similar, but you won’t need to add heat. The presence of alcohol in the spirit extract aromas and flavors from the infusing element into the spirit. Some things, like coffee beans, can infuse in a matter of hours – some teas in minutes. Other infusions of fruit or delicate herbs and spices may take several days.
So let’s look at ways to add some of our favorite holiday flavors with holiday syrups and Christmas infusions.
Associated with both Jewish and Christian traditions, honey is an easy addition to cocktails. The easiest way to do it is to create a honey syrup.
Simply heat upon some water and add it to honey. I usually use the ratio of 2 parts honey to 1 part warm water. Stir until the honey is combined, then refrigerate.
Additional infusion ideas: If you want to create more complex flavors, add spices to the honey syrup as infusions. Cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and clove are all wonderful additions. But don’t rule out florals like hibiscus, lavender or chamomille. All are easy to source in the winter as dried herbs.
2. Chocolate (Especially Combined with Orange)
I’m a chocoholic and love the flavor any time of year. But during the holidays I live for decadent desserts and parties with family favorites. One of my favorite ways to add chocolate flavors to syrups and spirits is through infusions with cacao nibs.
One combination I can’t get enough of is cacao nib infused Campari (in this article on Campari Infusions). I simple add 2 or 3 tablespoons of cacao nibs to a 1-2 cup jar of Campari and let the magic happen. Because Campari is full of citrus notes, it already has a lot of that gorgeous bitter orange flavor to it.
But if you’re working with another spirit or alcohol, consider adding orange peel to add great flavors of citrus to a syrup or spirit.
I usually add the peel of 2 oranges to a 1.5 to 2 cup amount of simple syrup or spirit. Make sure to use only the peel, avoid adding white pith to the infusion. The pith is extremely bitter. It will turn your orange flavored syrup or spirit into a rough, bitter concoction.
Please note that cacao nib often turn syrups and spirits alike dark brown. You’re gorgeous Empress Martini won’t look so blue if you’re adding cacao nib infusions to create a riff. It will taste wonderful, the color will just be off.
Additional infusion ideas: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon peel, raspberries, toasted nuts, etc.
3. Molasses and Ginger (Gingerbread)
The easiest way to add the flavor of gingerbread to cocktails is to make a holiday syrup out of molasses. Like honey, you can mix the molasses with warm water to create a syrup that doesn’t harden when iced down in a cocktail.
Because molasses (especially blackstrap molasses) is such a pungent flavor, I use 1:1 warm water to molasses and add in 1/2 cup light brown sugar. This keeps the flavor of the molasses strong, but cuts down on some of the bitterness with the addition of the brown sugar.
If you want to add the flavor of molasses and ginger to a spirit, add a few slices of fresh ginger to 1.5 cups of your spirit and add in 1 to 2 tsp of molasses. Start with one teaspoon, see how it tastes and add more as needed.
Additional infusion suggestions: cloves, allspice, peppers and cardamom are all great combinations and are strong enough to stand up to the flavor of molasses when in a simple syrup. Also consider cinnamon for a classic flavor combination.
While sorghum is more of a southern flavor, I find it pairs well with many aged spirits cocktails containing whiskey, bourbon and rum. It’s not as thick as molasses, but it can still benefit from the addition of water in order to make a great simple syrup for cocktails.
To create a great sorghum simple syrup, add 1/4 cup hot water to 3/4 cup sorghum. Stir until combined and store in the fridge.
Additional infusion suggestions: any baking spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
December is one of the only times of year I’ll actually see unshelled nuts (besides peanuts) in the grocery store. Adding some nut flavors to syrups and spirits is an incredible add – especially to whiskey, rum and vodka.
The key advice here is to make sure that the nuts are unsalted, and that you toast them before you use them for an infusion.
If you’re creating a simple syrup, consider lightly chopping the nuts after they are toasted. The smaller the pieces of nuts the greater the surface area of the nuts interacting with the spirit or syrup. But, you don’t want the pieces so small that they’re hard to filter out once you’ve finished infusing.
I generally create nut holiday syrups using the process above for infusing a simple syrup with a woody herb or whole spice. I heat the nuts in the simple syrup for 15-20 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
Additional infusion suggestions: any baking spices, or use one of the syrups mentioned above like honey or sorghum.
6. Mulling spices
Mulling spices aren’t just for wine. Making a batch of mulled wine is the definition of a heated infusion. But if you’d like to get those flavors in your holiday syrups, you can simply add mullling spices to your syrup of choice. Maple syrup, honey syrup and brown sugar syrup are favorites of mine for making a great syrup.
When you choose to infuse spirits, you’ll need to be cautious. Cloves and cinnamon infuse rather quickly and can overpower the other, more subtle spices in the combination. You may choose to pull the cinnamon and clove out once you like their flavor in the spirit.
Remember you can choose to infuse more than just spirits. Other cocktail ingredients like vermouths, liqueurs, cremes and cordials can also be used as a base for infusions.
Additional infusion suggestions: Add citrus and dried ginger, or a bag of chai tea can also make wonderful mulled spice infusion combinations.
7. Brown Sugar and Walnut (Rugelach)
I started this list with ginger break and the idea of a rugelach or babka infusion. I love a great rugelach and adding toasted walnuts, vanilla and some nutmeg to a brown sugar simple syrup can recreate this combination of flavors.
To make it, take 1.5 cups or brown sugar syrup, add 1 cup of toasted, chopped walnuts and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain and store in the fridge. If you want, add 1/2 sliced vanilla bean as you heat the syrup and let it cool.
Additional infusion suggestions.: there are so many flavors of rugelach – some have raspberry jam, or citrus flavors in them. Add fruit or citrus to the heated brown sugar syrup to create those infusions.
So Go Out There and Make Some Holiday Syrups
Don’t worry about getting it wrong with infusions. The beauty of them is that you taste them as they steep so you can made adjustments or changes to make sure they are going in the direction you intend. Spend a few minutes thinking about your favorite flavor combinations of the season and design infusions for syrups and spirits based on that inspiration.
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