Of all the seasons, the winter holidays may be the easiest to tie to a flavor. And even the most diet-conscious revelers may be hard-pressed to turn down a hot toddy or spiked eggnog.
Long before mom starts prepping her pumpkin pies, guests in bars and restaurants are ordering pumpkin martinis. At places like Firewaters in the Quarter at Tropicana Casino and Resort, seasonal favorites such as gingerbread and peppermint each get their own "signature cocktail." And Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur suddenly seems the only creamer for coffee.
An experienced bartender such as Firewaters' Bobby Wallace can pretty much whip up a candy-cane martini using the bottles he has on hand, no recipe needed.
"It's just easier to come up with drinks at Christmas than any other time of the year," Wallace says. "The holidays have a distinct flavor. The liquor just works really well with the season. I just mix them together and see how it tastes, then switch a little here and there to see if it tastes any better, see if the customers like it - just experimenting."
Wallace likes to use liqueurs that may not usually get a lot of use, such as Creme de cacao, Rumplemintz and Goldschlager to create concoctions that remind adults of happy childhood memories, with a grown-up twist. This year, he created candy-cane, gingerbread and peppermint pattie martinis for those guests who love to drink their holiday treats.
Firewaters actually is one of several so-called martini bars whose parent company also owns restaurants including Hooters. But that doesn't make it' "too corporate" to allow seasoned bartenders like Wallace a little room for creativity, says manager Bobby Sauselein.
"We don't really have that (head bartender) position, but Bobby, he's been around for so long, he's kind of the main guy," Sauselein says. "He's a great bartender. The thing about all these drinks is they taste as good as they sound."
And that's something coming from Sauselein, who really is more interested in the many, many different beers on tap at Firewaters, and even more still in bottles. But Wallace hasn't lasted eight years behind the super-stocked bar without learning some things about his customers.
"Usually, people stick with what they like. But that doesn't mean they don't just ask what we have to offer," Wallace says. "If I think of something creative, I'll print it on a piece of paper and put it in the (martini) menu. It's knowing the tastes of the liquor you're using, how well each complements the other."
Today, Wallace plans to spend the morning celebrating the holiday with his family. But by night, he'll be behind the bar in The Quarter at Tropicana, and he expects to make plenty of his three Christmas confections for guests high in holiday spirits.
"For a party, I'd recommend any one of these three," he says, when asked what advice he has for the home bartender. "All three are equally good. The name is what it tastes like, it tastes like the season.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Candy Cane Martini
•1 1/4 ounce vanilla vodka
•1 1/4 ounce Creme de Cacao
•1 ounce Rumplemintz
•Mini candy cane, for garnish
Fill a martini shaker with ice, add liquors and a splash of grenadine. Shake well to chill and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with candy cane.