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From mulled cider to festive punch: Mark Diacono’s Christmas drinks recipes

For a couple of festive weeks at least, it feels acceptable – appropriate, even – to have a special drink at any time of day. Whether that’s just for you, or for family or for when you have people coming round, take a little effort over the quality and combination of the ingredients, and pleasure is guaranteed. These six Christmas drinks each carry flavours that cement that feeling, and even the ones with alcohol can be tweaked to cater to those too young or who prefer to be booze-free: for the spiced gin and the mojito, for instance, try one of the excellent alcohol-free spirits now out there, and there are several zero-alcohol proseccos and ciders available these days. Some of the recipes require just a little time for a key ingredient to be made ahead, but the result is so worth it; the making of the drink itself is quick and easy. Those key ingredients – spiced gin, syrups and so on – are superb in other ways, too. I’ve included some suggestions, but don’t let that stop you experimenting. And while the punch recipe makes enough for a dozen or so, and the gin infusion for the negroni a litre, the ingredients for the rest are per serving, so multiply them up for more people as you wish and build them in a jug if it makes the preparing and serving easier. Merry Christmas.

Christmas negroni

A short sharp, overnight infusion of the gin leaves the orange sitting very much upfront and driving this festive car, which suits a negroni (or, indeed, a bright gin and tonic) very well; by all means let it infuse longer for a mellower result. I may lose (or gain?) a few friends for suggesting Aperol ahead of Campari in this, but I think it works better with this festive gin. And if you’re after an especially Christmassy tipple, do try a gimlet using 50ml gin with 25ml nutmeg and cinnamon syrup and 30ml lime juice.

For the infusion (makes 1 litre)
1 litre gin
Zest of 2 oranges
2 fresh bay leaves
, torn
10 peppercorns
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 good-sized rosemary sprigs

For the negroni, per serving
25ml Christmas gin (see above and method)
25ml Aperol
25ml red vermouth
1 rosemary sprig

Put all the ingredients for the infusion in a large jar and leave to infuse for at least 12 hours.

To build the drink, put all the ingredients in a rocks glass generously upholstered with ice cubes, stir for a few seconds and serve immediately.

Nutmeg and cinnamon fizz

I love this simple cocktail just as it is – sweet, sharp and spicy in perfect balance – but feel free to add an inch of orange or grapefruit juice if you fancy a little fruitiness in there. The syrup is ready to use as soon as it is cold, but will gain intensity if you leave to infuse further. By all means sieve out the spices when bottling, or leave that until just before using. Try this with the ratio of syrup to prosecco below first, and add a little more syrup to suit your taste and the character of the prosecco, if need be. This makes enough syrup for 15-20 cocktails; if you have any left over, store in the fridge, where it will be good for months – try it over ice-cream or pancakes, for a start, and you absolutely have to make a brandy alexander with 40ml syrup, 40ml double cream and 80ml brandy.

For the syrup (makes about 600ml)
400g caster sugar
2 whole nutmegs
, bashed to rubble
1 generous cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

For the fizz (per serving)
1 part nutmeg and cinnamon syrup (see above and method)
4 parts prosecco
1 sprig lemon thyme

First make the syrup. Put the sugar and 350ml water in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the spices, simmer very gently for a few minutes, then take off the heat and leave to cool completely. Strain before funnelling it into a bottle, or funnel it in spices and all.

Pour the syrup and prosecco into a flute, stir with the sprig of lemon thyme and serve.

Lemon and gingerade

A lovely, warming, enlivening drink for anyone too young or who prefers to avoid alcohol; if that’s not you, and the mood takes, you can most definitely substitute the sparkling water for prosecco. In the spirit of research, I made a gimlet using equal parts of this cordial, the Christmas gin above and lime juice, and it was really special.

For the syrup (makes about 800ml)
400g caster sugar
2 lemongrass stalks
Zest of 6 lemons
, plus the juice of 3
3 globes of stem ginger (about 60g), finely chopped
Sparkling water, to top

Put the sugar and 650ml cold water in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lightly bash the lemongrass with a rolling pin, add it to the pan with the lemon zest and ginger, and simmer gently for five minutes.

Take off the heat and leave to cool. Strain the syrup into a jug, add the lemon juice, then funnel into a bottle.

To serve, dilute to around one part syrup to four parts sparkling water.

Mulled cider (or apple juice)

Having lived in the West Country for most of my decades on this planet, and having made my own cider and apple juice for a good many years, I feel confident in encouraging you towards the excellence of this embellished version. It works equally well with apple juice instead, but please don’t dilute the quality of either. Depending on the character of the cider/apple juice, you may like a little more honey, but go easy at first, because the spices imply sweetness and you may find you prefer it as it is.

Serves 1

440ml cider or apple juice
2 cloves
2 star anise
, broken into pieces
1 allspice berries, bashed
2 green cardamom pods, seeds only
1 slug apple brandy or sloe gin (optional)
1 tbsp honey (optional)

Put the cider or apple juice in a pan, add all the other ingredients except the honey, then bring slowly up to a simmer and leave to bubble gently for five or so minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave to infuse for five minutes. Taste, then stir in a little honey if you think it needs it. Serve immediately.

Cranberry mojito

The classic mojito – rum, sugar, lime, mint and soda water – gets a wonderful festive treatment using cranberries in three forms. It’s really something. The juice has the sourness you expect, the syrup tastes not so much of cranberries as a light combination of rose and raspberries, while the cranberries themselves bring a gorgeous, sweet-sour fruitiness. The syrup uses the standard-sized supermarket packet of cranberries and makes enough for 16 mojitos, but if that proves challenging, enjoy any excess with sparkling water or even use it instead of the nutmeg and cinnamon syrup in the fizz recipe above. Any leftover cranberries are really good with yoghurt or ice-cream.

For the syrup (makes about 800ml)
700g sugar
250g cranberries
, squeezed so they pop open

For the mojito (per serving)
12 mint leaves, plus a sprig to garnish
50ml fresh lime juice (from 2-3 limes)
50ml white rum
12 reserved stewed cranberries
(see above and method)
50ml cranberry syrup (see above and method)
50ml cranberry juice
Soda water
, to top

Put the sugar and 700ml water in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cranberries, simmer gently for 15 minutes, then take off the heat and leave to cool and infuse for a few hours, or overnight. Sieve out and reserve the cranberries, and decant the syrup into a clean bottle.

To build the drink, stir the mint leaves and lime juice in a highball glass. Add a handful of crushed ice, the rum, cranberries, syrup and juice, stir to combine, then add soda water to taste.

Christmas punch

The word “punch” reminds me of the first half-term my friend was trusted to be left at home alone, and we raided every bottle in his parents’ drinks cabinet for an inch of whatever alcohol was open to make what we imagined was punch. That was not a day that ended well. Thankfully, this festive punch is a very different story. The black grapes really make the difference here, with their deep sweet-sharpness joining the dots between the sparkling booze and the ginger, rosemary, rhubarb, citrus and apple. Whether you use prosecco or sparkling cider (I like a 50:50 mix) is your choice, but if the booze is on the dry side, you may want to add a little syrup from the jar of stem ginger to sweeten it a touch.

Makes 2 litres

400g black grapes
1.2 litres prosecco and/or sparkling cider

650ml apple and rhubarb juice
Chegworth Valley, Cawston Press or similar
4 globes stem ginger
(about 80g), finely chopped
5 rosemary sprigs
2 oranges
, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 generous dash Christmas gin (see above), or sloe gin (optional)

Heat the oven to 210C (190C fan)/410F/gas 6½. Put the grapes on an oven tray, then roast for 20-25 minutes, until lightly collapsed.

Pour half the prosecco or cider into a large jug or punch bowl, add the juice, ginger, rosemary and (squishing them as they go in) the grapes, then refrigerate for at least eight hours, to give the flavours time to develop.

To serve, add the rest of the booze, a big handful or two of ice, and the orange and lemon slices, and ladle into cups or rocks glasses.

  • Mark Diacono’s latest book, Spice: A Cook’s Companion, is published by Quadrille at £25. To order a copy for £22, go to guardianbookshop.com