Christmas cheer comes in many forms. For me, it’s best felt decorating a tree with my brothers and parents while Johnny Mathis sings on the stereo. We’re a vodka family — I come by it honestly — so the beverage of choice is likely to be screwdrivers.
Are the two forever intertwined? Perhaps. Let’s not forget the words of Bing Crosby in "White Christmas," on one of his favorite parts of the season: "hot buttered rum — light on the butter."
Like 94 million other Americans this year (as estimated by AAA), I traveled more than 50 miles to my Christmas destination — in my case, driving from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville, VA. Along the way (and once there) there were Bloody Marys, ryes, and rum punch — enough drinks to build a holiday retrospective.
12/21/13 11:30 A.M. Bloody Mary No. 1
After dropping his girlfriend off in Northern Virginia, my friend Jeremy and I stopped for brunch in Leesburg. Over my loud, Louisiana-born objections, he drove us to The Cajun Experience, which — even if it didn’t quite live up to its name — did have absolutely delicious fried alligator.
I ordered a Bloody Mary to get the holiday weekend started “right” and commented to the bartender that Zing Zang, the mix he was using, was also the one favored by my relatives living in Baton Rouge, so at least it’s authentic. I didn’t add that I find it toxically salty. The “Experience” found a nifty, equally authentic solution to this exorbitant dosage of sodium: a fresh okra functioning as an in-beverage garnish soaked up much of the salinity. Add the rim of the only Creole seasoning you’ll ever need, Tony Chachere’s (pronounced SAH-share; don’t ask me why) tipped this drink into the thumbs up.
Jeremy was driving; he didn’t get any.
12/21/13 5:15 P.M. Screwdriver (with adjustable heads)
There’s really only one drink in my father’s house: vodka mixed with whatever fruit juices are in the fridge. There are often enough sea breezes (cranberry and grapefruit) and bay breezes (pineapple and cranberry) to blow up a gale-force storm, but orange juice is a staple.
In college, I called screwdrivers made with Sunny D "Phillips Head," but my parents have long since seen the not-from-concentrate light, and I was greeted by a fridge filled with Tropicana. The elder Lejeunes are also fans of cutting the OJ with some newer flavors, and what to my wondering eyes did appear but pomegranate-blueberry juice as an accessory.
Essentially, their icebox is a toolkit for screwdrivers and variations thereof. It’s possible to get not just your vitamin C but your antioxidants as well, all while boozing it up.
I taught the ‘rents and my brother Noah how to play Spades while sipping what Brits and Aussies call simply a "vodka orange" plus a dash of pom-blue.
"So I’ve started contributing to the Drink section of The Daily Meal," I mentioned.
"However did they find you?" Noah asked drily.
"You underbid again," I snapped.
12/22/13 4:00 P.M. Bloody Mary No. 2
Ever seen an unattractively stuffed Christmas stocking? The planners were aiming for thoughtful, but they landed squarely on "too much." Such were my thoughts while watching football with my friend Julian at Timberwood Grill in Albemarle County. Timberwood offers an interesting selection of Bloodys, and I simply picked the wrong one.
My "Cowboy Bloody" was made with Absolute Peppar, Worchestershire (so far so good), a hint of A1 and plenty of Texas Pete (a creative switch from Tabasco, but, well, no) and garnished with olives, a stick of string cheese (!) and a Slim Jim. What can I say? It was too bizarre to resist.
Julian fared better with her "True Blood-y," which, the menu promised, "even Sookie Stackhouse loves." Bacon vodka and the usual accutrements are joined by a touch of garlic. Not quite fang-licking good, but a definite step up.
Julian did better with the pigskin, too: her Patriots beat the Ravens while my Saints fell to the Panthers. The truth is in the sauce.
12/23/13 10:30 P.M. Rum Swizzle
Rum punch is as Christmas-y as roasted turkey or reindeer (which are harder to catch than turkey, but are actually equally delicious), so I felt the urge to concoct a fun, fruity variation for the guests I invited to a slightly off-the-beaten-path late-night movie screening.
We watched Batman Returns, which has far more wintry style than Die Hard or Gremlins; Tim Burton’s second take on Gotham looks like Atlas Shrugged covered in tinsel, holly, and snow — and Danny Elfman’s score is shivery December bliss.
I found an old recipe for Rum Swizzles and when the first batches were too violently sweet, adjusted accordingly. We sipped our swizzles while Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer purred absurd lines like "You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it." Delicious.
12/24/13 8:00 P.M. Bulliet Rye on the rocks
Typically, rye is the only kind of whiskey I like without a mixer, and I sipped a glass of this while the fam and I made last-minute adjustments to a Christmas tree that had been up for three weeks already.
"There is almost enough on it," my dad said. It’s a running joke that no tannenbaum is ever decorated enough to please my father.
"There’s way too much," I replied.
"Oh no, no — we could get a least 100 more on here," he said, craning his neck to gaze at the equally overwrought branches in the back.
"Dad, there are ornaments actually leaning against each other!"
"Well, not over here," he said.
I took a giant gulp of whiskey and gently kicked a present I knew was his.
"Over here you mean?" I ask. "Over on…" (another kick) "this side," I added playfully, grinning. Dad looked down placidly at the gift I’d been nudging.
“My parents don’t send breakable gifts,” he commented evenly, taking a sip of his Christmas Eve screwdriver just before hanging a shimmering, silver snowflake ornament on a branch that already held a toy soldier.
Nine times out of ten, this is what passes for a fight in our family around the holidays. Perhaps it’s because we love the holiday so much, or perhaps it’s due to all the free-flowing alcohol we enjoy — you never know.