The Twelve Drinks of Christmas: Volume 2, Drink 7

I used to know a guy who seemed unable to escape the fact that he was born during, “the darkest days of the year,” as he put it. I suppose that was his particular demon to face. I guess we all have our own. I have never really thought of the Winter Solstice as the darkest day of the year, but rather, as a new beginning. From here forward, every day has a little more light, so it is the dawn of a brighter time. A chance to start over, to get things right this time, or perhaps, more right. So, with an eye on those better days to come won’t you join me now as we stand and make Dark Hedges.

I am not sure why this is a holiday drink, beyond the good folks over at Imbibe Magazine describing it as one. It was created by Abby Butler at Denver’s contemporary cocktail bar, The Tatarian. This cocktail takes its name from a famed avenue of overarching beech trees in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. I can think of little that would be better served for this dark yule time than walking between those dark hedges on a cold winter night. Whether they are particularly Christmasy or not, the ingredients on this one have had me intrigued since I first read about it, so let’s make it and see how things turn out,

This one calls for an infused ingredient, so go back in time a couple of days and get started making some Roasted Cacao Nib Old Tom Gin. There is nothing to it, just toss 1/4 cup of cacao nibs into an iron skillet and toast on medium until fragrant and remove from heat. Add your toasted cacao nibs to 375 ml of gin, I chose Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. The original recipe calls for Old Tom and I think this is going to be key. Old Tom Gin is closer to the original Genever style, a little lighter, less botanical and a bit sweeter, a nice balance to some of the other ingredients and a great carrier for that roasted cacao flavor. Let this mixture sit for 24-48 hours then strain and bottle. It should keep pretty much indefinitely.

That done, grab your tins and pop in 1 1/2 ounces of your Roasted Cacao Nib infused Old Tom Gin, 1/2 an ounce of dark creme de cacao, 1/2 an ounce of Branca Menta, 1 ounce of pineapple juice, 3/4 of an once of freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1/4 ounce of Demerara syrup and 1 drop of Droplets Tonka Bean Bitters by Javier De Las Muelas . Add some artisanal ice and give it a good shake to the beat of a single cello playing “The Wexford Carol“, for a suitably mournful and reverential sound from 12th century Ireland. When well chilled, double strain over a king cube in a rocks glass and garnish with a few cacao nibs.

I simply adore this drink. It’s rich, complex and kind unexpected. There are these incredible layers of bittersweetness, so many different elements competing for attention here. Like a choir on a cold winters night, the voices rising, each distinct, but in perfect harmony. That Branca Menta partners with the creme de cacao to lay a deep chocolatey, menthol, herbal note for that gin and citrus to soar above. It is almost too wonderful. This is not going to be for everyone, but it suits me just fine.

A dark drink for the darkest day of the year, it seems fitting. A lot of folks have trouble with the holidays and that is ok, we don’t have to be happy all the time, even during this prescribed season of jollity. I am having a hard time this year. There, I said it. It can be hard to admit it when you are feeling down. Especially when you have no good reason to. My life is good, remarkably so. I am blessed in so many ways and I really should not complain. Honestly, I don’t have anything to complain about. Work is going well, my health is manageable, I have a roof over my head and can provide for my family. Most importantly, I am surrounded by people who love me eve when I hide from them. Still, I find my sleep troubled and my days darker than they should be. That’s how depression works. It doesn’t matter if your mind has to stretch itself to find things to be down about when the wrong chemical taps get turned on upstairs. I am not even sure what I have to be depressed about, so I should just keep it to myself. However, I am always preaching about being honest and sharing, so it seems a little disingenuous to just smile and pretend that this is fine. I’m ok, just not feeling great about it.

Last year, the holidays were particularly rough. What can I say, we are living in unprecedented times. Still, I was hopeful that it was a one time thing. That next year, we would be back to normal, but we aren’t quite there, are we? I had hoped that we would put division behind us, as we came together to work toward a better future for all. I hoped that the heavy costs of the last couple years would be reckoned and we might all appreciate each other a little more on the other side. I guess I had hoped that this year, we would suddenly have this Frank Capra-esque moment where we would all see each other again. You know, snow softly falling, folks hugging, wishing each other Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas or whatever seasons greeting felt right, but it has felt a lot more like George Bailey’s evening with Clarence, just too much darkness all around.

There is good news, though. Today is the darkest day of the year, which means that tomorrow, there will be sun. That is the way things go, you get down, you come back up and no matter how it feels you are not alone. There will always be troughs, you just have to hang in there and ride the wave till it crests again. Like the poem says, “The tide rises and the tide falls”. One of the things that keeps me going during the hard times is remembering that I am not alone, we all feel this way sometimes. So, when you are down, remember that others have gone through the same kinds of things and made it out the other side; and don’t forget those tough days when you are up again, show little patience and kindness for those who are struggling. Like Ian McClaren so wisely reminded us “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Yeah, everyone, even you; so stay safe, stay hydrated and stay strong, my friends.