As the holidays approach at a rapid clip, Tia Barrett is taking full advantage of everything Chicago has to offer. And for the Beverage Director of Michelin-starred Esmé, that means a lot of mulled wine.
“Chicago is a really magical place during the holidays, with a lot of outdoor festivals and festive traditions such as the Lincoln Park Zoolights, which is one of my favorite things to do during the season,” she says. “The best way to experience it is walking around with warm mulled wine with all those heartwarming baking spice flavors.”
In her role at Esmé, however, flavor is just one part of the puzzle. Barrett’s beverage program is as meaningful as it is delicious, with offerings that seek, whenever possible, to put the spotlight on mission-driven producers and underrepresented voices. As a result, the wine list is chiefly populated by women and BIPOC producers of biodynamic and organic bottles, for a welcome deviation from the status quo.
And that’s not the only way Barrett is shaking things up. Here are some of her favorite seasonal cocktail creations to surprise and satisfy your guests this year.
Her favorite holiday cocktail creation: Eggnog with Brown Butter Fat-Washed Cognac
“Most people think of hot buttered rum, but I went down a long rabbit hole of experimenting with fat-washing other spirits,” she says. “While I use the technique year-round to add complexity and texture to cocktails, I especially enjoy it when we get into the colder months. Using brown butter to fat wash cognac before adding eggnog is probably my favorite way to enjoy the quintessential holiday beverage.”
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Her favorite traditional holiday cocktail: The Coquito
“In Chicago, the Coquito is an iconic cocktail that someone’s mom or auntie makes all the time,” Barrett says. “It’s like the sister or cousin to eggnog, but because it’s from Puerto Rico, it’s rum based. The classic version is simply condensed milk, coconut, different spices and egg yolks with the cocktail prepared the same way you’d make eggnog. I’ve also seen versions with fruit such as passionfruit and mango.”
The holiday cocktail that’s overdone: Pumpkin Spice Mimosas
“When holiday flavors are added to mimosas — think pumpkin spice, apple cider, cranberry — [it’s too much],” she says. “While I appreciate seasonal ingredients in certain contexts and cocktail preparations, they don’t belong in a beverage as simple as a mimosa.”
The Chicago cocktail she’s grabbing on her night off: The Dandy Crown‘s rotational Hot Punch
“This River West cocktail-focused bar and restaurant is another of my favorite places to go during the holidays,” Barrett notes. “They have a festive outdoor patio and interior, but it doesn’t look like Christmas threw up in a bar. Each week they make a new hot punch in a crock pot, so there’s a reason to stop by every week for a warm beverage while enjoying the snow.”
Her favorite seasonal pairing: Roasted Duck and a High Acid Riesling
“No matter how you prepare it, duck is a super fatty protein, so I always recommend pairing it with something really high acid,” she says. “During a holiday meal, I love the progression of going from bubbles to white wine, then red wine, and love the pairing of cold white wine with a rich protein.”
And for dessert? A Rye Old Fashioned and Apple Pie
“By the time I get to dessert, I’m ready to party again with a cocktail,” Barrett says. “The spices from the rye whiskey sync up well with the spices you get in a classic apple pie.”
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