‘Tis the season for holiday parties. With work functions, family get-togethers, and your neighborhood ugly-Christmas-sweater party, it often seems that December is one nonstop rager.
All that holiday cheer is often accompanied by all those holiday drinks—eggnog, punch, cocktails, glass after glass of wine—so it’s little wonder that this month is usually when ‘I’m going to take it easy on the booze’ pledges fall by the wayside.
For those trying to abstain this time of year, or, more important, for those who are in recovery, navigating a season of family obligations and never-ending parties can be particularly tricky. There is often strong social pressure to partake, and in a month that can dredge up a lot of feelings, both good and bad, each successive get-together can quickly turn into a minefield.
According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to addiction recovery—holiday customs, childhood memories, and annual gatherings that are closely associated with drug or alcohol use can tug at your emotions and put your recovery at risk. They cite financial stress, over-commitment, and family dynamics as just some of the many obstacles that those seeking to stay sober may face this month. So, we reached out to local food and beverage pros to get their tips on how to best navigate the booze-soaked holiday season.
Scott Crawford, chef-owner of Raleigh’s Crawford and Son, has himself been in recovery for years and is a strong advocate for those in the hospitality industry looking to get sober. In 2017, Crawford founded the Raleigh chapter of Ben’s Friends, a support group that helps hospitality professionals struggling with substance abuse and addiction, and holds meetings at Crawford and Son every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. and Monday at 2:00 p.m.
“For me, the holidays bring a lot of stress and fatigue already,” Crawford says. “The idea of adding a bunch of alcohol to that, like I used to when I drank, is so unattractive to me at this point.”
Crawford recognizes that holiday parties can be a particularly tricky occasion.
“A host always feels obligated to get a drink into your hand,” he says, “[But] we’re nervous about that awkward moment at whether we take the drink or turn it down.”
Crawford says that at parties, he tries to head off that uncomfortable moment by having a spirit-free drink in hand.
“I still love to go to parties and see people. I make sure I always have a refreshing beverage, even if that means I bring it. If you like a specific wine, you’d bring that to a party, so why not a specific spirit-free beverage?”
His go-to? Drinking vinegars, also known as shrubs, are sweetened vinegar-based syrups that bartenders rely on to bring concentrated flavor to cocktails and mocktails. Crawford buys vinegars from Lindera Farms and mixes them with club soda and a citrus twist.
Crawford also notes that there has been a rise in the popularity of low-alcohol cocktails and mocktails at bars and restaurants. At Crawford and Son, there are three spirit-free drinks on the menu, each crafted with the same attention to flavor as the cocktails. One, the Capital Bounce, is a refreshing ruby-hued libation that mingles cherry, hibiscus, cinnamon, and soda water that exudes holiday flair—and as the recipe shows, it’s easy to make in big batches for parties.
Brad Farran, beverage director for the forthcoming Durham Food Hall, has also seen a shift towards alcohol-free drinks.
“As the personal health trend has gained steam over the past few years, there has been a decided rise in interest in nonalcoholic beverages,” he says. “People are still looking for unique flavor experiences, but maybe without all the extra calories and the headache in the morning.”
Farran likes to lean on fresh lemonade with seltzer instead of still water for a quick, refreshing mocktail. “You can make it jazzier by substituting tonic syrup or grenadine for sugar or simple syrup,” he adds. “You can even take it a step further and muddle some mint or fresh berries in.”
At Durham’s Alley Twenty Six, owner Shannon Healy always ensures he has an alcohol-free cocktail on the menu.
“When we are talking about drinks, many of the flavors come to us through sweet products. We balance sweet against bitter, sour, spicy, and boozy,” he explains. “With non-alcoholic [drinks], we don’t have the boozy, but making anything delicious means paying attention to balance.”
This season at Alley Twenty Six, Healy is offering a Frozen Almond Horchata, a boozeless one-up on your typical ‘nog. Crafted with almond milk, rice milk, cinnamon, rice, and sugar, it’s so tasty you don’t even miss the liquor. He also shares a recipe for a festive spirit-free cranberry-rosemary punch that’s easy to make and serves a crowd.
For those of us who do drink alcohol but are looking to offer support to friends and family who might not want to partake, Crawford offers a few final bits of advice.
“Do a little research on interesting and exciting spirit-free cocktails. For instance, hibiscus is a great ingredient for [a spirit-free cocktail],” Crawford says. “Instead of asking people if they drink or don’t drink, offer up a spirit-free drink alongside a cocktail.If the option for a booze-less drink is already on the table, you’ve eliminated any awkward moments.”
So, raise a mocktail to the holidays and know that, yes, it is possible to have a spirited (and delicious) spirit-free December and start to the new year.
Recipe by Zack Thomas, head bartender at Crawford and Son
Makes 12 servings
2 cups water
1 cup dark pitted cherries
½ cup dried hibiscus flowers (look for them at Hispanic and Asian markets)
½ cup sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
½ cup charred oak chips (purchase online or at a brew supply store such as Atlantic Brew Supply in Raleigh)
Heat water until boiling, then add the cherries, hibiscus, and sugar.
Reduce heat to a simmer for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid and let cool to room temperature.
Add 2 cinnamon sticks and ½ cup of charred oak chips.
Let the mixture sit overnight.
Strain out solids and serve the mixture over ice with equal parts soda water.
Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon (using the last cinnamon stick).
Recipe by Shannon Healy, owner of Alley Twenty Six
Makes 10-15, 5-oz servings (depending on how much soda water you use)
For the cranberry-rosemary syrup:
1 quart water
2 16-oz bags of cranberries
2 10-inch sprigs of fresh rosemary
3 pieces of star anise
3 green tea teabags
1 cup sugar
1 pinch kosher salt
1 large punch bowl, chilled
Very cold ice (a large ice block or fancy ice mold for bowl, and a couple large cubes for the punch cups)
2-3 2-liter bottles of soda water, chilled
In a medium pot, boil water with 1 bag of cranberries and both rosemary sprigs, submerged, and star anise for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add tea bags, and steep for 5 minutes.
Turn off heat and strain out solids. Return liquid to the pot and put back on stove. Return to a boil, then stir in sugar and salt.
Turn off heat and let syrup cool to room temperature, then place in refrigerator until cold.
To serve, fill chilled punch bowl with ice block. Add the cranberry-rosemary syrup and soda water to taste. Garnish with the other bag of cranberries.
Ladle individual servings into punch cups.