“This is Starka,” he says, holding another bottle. “It’s from Lithuania. It’s a grape brandy infused with linden flowers.”
We are downtown in O’Haire’s spacious kitchen, which doubles as his living space and an occasional location for his regular underground dinner party, known as The Full Moon Supper Club.
Half a block away is Propaganda Doughnuts, an artisanal donut shop he has owned and operated since January 2014. Next door is his latest venture, The Bandit Queen, serving Ramen and Asian trade-route fair.
O’Haire is a pastry chef and sommelier. He plays the banjo. He is a mixologist.
Every year, he makes his own bitters from green walnuts, climbing into wet tree branches to harvest the nuts before they fall to the ground.
In his kitchen, he grows orchids and stout-trunked bonsai trees.
He grew up in northern Michigan in a family of French Gypsy extraction. He knows about sleds. He tells me about exploding trees in winter. He talks about mythography and circadian rhythms and constellations. Earlier this year, he competed in a TV show called “Donut Showdown” on the Cooking Channel. He won.
A typical post on his Facebook page reads: “It’s that time of year again! Who’s got a mountain ash tree in their yard and will let me come harvest the berries? I’ll share some rowanberry jelly and rowanberry gin with whomever supports my harvest this year.”
But I am not here to talk rowanberries, or the cultural significance of the dread star Algol in the constellation Perseus.
Fact: There is no better way to endure a Michigan winter than reclined next to a snapping fire with a warming potion balanced on one’s potato-filled belly. To that end, I have asked O’Haire to devise a few seasonal cocktails.
I am in his kitchen now, with an hourglass-shaped glass of alchermes in my hand, as he prepares his ingredients. GR
Bobby Burns, Variation
Glass: Cocktail coupe
2 ounce Oolong Tea Scotch (see recipe below)
¾ ounce Carpano Antica vermouth
½ ounce Benedictine liqueur
Mix all ingredients in a cocktail glass full of ice. Stir well for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon. Serve shortbread on the side, as is traditional for this cocktail.
Oolong Tea Scotch
1 bottle Highland scotch (something inexpensive but still delicious)
1 ounce fine-quality Oolong tea
Combine ingredients and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Strain and bottle.
A dram of the Bobby Burns, taken in front of a fire as snow spirals outside, will cure any ailment. It has everything. The familiar aggressiveness of the whiskey, which ascends one’s nose and clears the sinuses, is softened by the viscous herbal lip-smacking sweetness of the Benedictine liqueur. The result is a profoundly comforting winter cocktail that will have you hoping winter lasts until June.
Wright Road Rum Punch
Glass: punch glass or highball.
To fill a punchbowl:
16 ounces Fallen Apple Rum (see recipe)
16 ounces cream sherry
24 ounces whole milk
1/3 cup raw honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Ice, to fill punchbowl
Freshly grated nutmeg, to top
Mix honey and sherry well until honey dissolves. Pour in punchbowl with all other ingredients, adding ice last (or, pour all ingredients into a pitcher and let guests fill their glasses with ice). Serve in glasses rimmed with equal parts of maple sugar and smoked sea salt, gently mixed.
Fallen Apple Rum
1 cup dried apples
1/4 cup raisins
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 bottle Appleton Estate VX (or other rich gold rum)
Combine in large jar and let infuse for at least 1 week. Strain/filter and re-bottle for use.
“On the rim,” says O’Haire, placing a squat punch glass in front of me, “is alder-smoked salt.” As I take my first sip, I understand everything that is wrong with the sweet, milkshake-thick eggnog in which I sometimes indulge during the holidays. The smoky tang of the salt on the rim — strong and savory like a wood fire — precedes the gently sweet floral taste of the vanilla, and the apple rum and cream sherry. It is perfect for entertaining.
Smoke and Mirrors
Glass: large snifter
Also needed: a playing card, postcard or paper napkin to fully cover the mouth of the glass.
2 ounces Maison Rouge VSOP cognac
¾ ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
¼ ounce Domaine Canton ginger liqueur
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters
1 small handful whole spices (2 parts broken cinnamon sticks, 1 part cardamom pods, 1 part whole cloves)
Pile the spices on a heatproof plate. With a stick lighter or kitchen torch, light the spices on fire until they smolder steadily. Quickly cover the smoking pile with a snifter.
In a mixing glass, combine all other ingredients. Add ice to the glass and stir lightly for 20 seconds.
Work very quickly: Flip the smoke-filled glass upright and strain the cocktail into the bowl of the glass. Quickly cover the top of the snifter with a card to trap the smoke. Serve immediately.
The result is pungently fragrant with woody undertones. The heat of the cognac is tempered by the aromatic flavors of the orange and ginger components and the burned spices.
I’m reminded immediately of an English Christmas pudding. For long minutes, I take turns sipping the contents and then burying my nose in the bowl of the snifter to inhale great lungfuls of the fumes, which fill the kitchen like incense.
It is winter now, I think to myself as the smoke slowly clears. And let it winter stay.
1 ounce Linie Aquavit
1 ounce 100 percent cranberry juice
1 teaspoon raw honey
2 ounces dry champagne, to fill glass
Combine aquavit, cranberry and honey in an ice-filled shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled flute and top with dry champagne. Garnish with a thin ribbon of cucumber and a twist of lemon.
“Essentially,” says O’Haire, “it’s like a Scandinavian-flavored cosmopolitan.” Pale pink in the glass, the Stockholm Syndrome is clean and refreshing. A Norwegian caraway-infused vodka, the Linie Aquavit dominates the cocktail, altering and augmenting the tartness of the champagne and cranberry juice. Its rye-bread odor imparts a savory finish that works surprisingly well.