The holiday season is one of the few times of year that implores you to become a kid again.
Every food group or drink option is suddenly candied. Elaborate cocktails are dipped in peppermint and sugar, promising to taste like a childhood snack. Restaurants boast homestyle meals, and coffee shops bring back every hot chocolate and cream-filled dessert.
At times the relentless holiday marketing and Christmas fervor can feel like a gimmick. But there are some venues where the seasonal offerings do exactly what’s needed to sweeten even the most soured holiday spirit.
I visited five spots serving holiday beverages, ranging from the sometimes controversial pumpkin spice latte to boozy eggnog concoctions. Here are some of my favorites.
Pumpkin spice at Cafe June in Ellicott City
Erin Cha did not understand the depths of her father’s passion for coffee grounds until she discovered his thermometer-looking device, made to monitor the light passing through each bean, at their Ellicott City cafe.
Cafe June was opened by Cha’s father, affectionately known as Mr. June. The business, born in 2021, is one of the few in Howard County to outlast the pandemic and still specialize in latte art, according to Cha.
The eatery is equipped with a refractometer (the medical-looking, aforementioned device) and an espresso maker that Cha’s father believes is the “Lamborghini of coffee makers,” she said.
For Cafe June’s first foray into seasonal beverages, they developed a pumpkin spice latte and sweet cream pumpkin cold brew. Each drink consists of espresso, milk (preferably from a cow if you’re seeking a frothier, carefully decorated latte) and a house-made pumpkin syrup. Coffee beans are shipped from Portland, Oregon, through an agreement with Coava Coffee Roasters, which boasts high quality, medium roast coffee.
The drink was neither syrupy nor too sweet. I savored each sip, despite being a black coffee drinker.
Mulled wine at The Wurst in Federal Hill
Two years ago, bartender Danny Woods had his first sip of mulled wine at a friend’s holiday party. He never forgot it — the way the spices crept inside his nose and left a warm, citrus residue on his tongue.
This holiday season, Woods is bringing his own take on the classic Christmas drink to The Wurst.
A speakeasy-style cocktail bar, the 22-seat venue sits inside a vault on the second floor of Crossbar der Biergarten, an eatery located at 18 E. Cross St.
“We wanted a spiced hot drink,” Woods said of the latest addition to their holiday menu.
The Malbec red wine-based cocktail, simmered with cinnamon, orange and sugar, stands out among their list of predominantly chilled drinks — and it’s not because of my love for red wine. The drink has a real kick, in part due to its mixture of Cîroc and cognac.
The centuries-old drink, initially created to bring warmth to the body in winter, has now become a fast favorite among those looking to escape the cold, according to Woods.
Peppermint mocha at Artifact Coffee in Woodberry
I never understood the need to add peppermint to a latte. The chilling herb seemed a strange counter to the warmth I was seeking from a holiday drink.
Still, they are a symptom of the season, and occasionally, done just sweet enough to serve as a tasty break from the morning coffee routine. Artifact Coffee, a 2,000- square-foot rustic stone eatery built into the side of a former Union Mill factory, has attracted crowds to its hallowed halls for their own renditions of the drink.
Since opening in 2012, the cafe has lived on the periphery of Hampden, among a series of industrial plots and 19th-century homes in the Woodberry neighborhood. Their peppermint mocha is one of 12 drinks offered on this year’s seasonal menu, ranging from a spiced Vietnamese cold brew to a “Noggin on Heaven’s Door” eggnog and espresso beverage.
The mocha is made with house-made peppermint syrup and crushed peppermint candy. But the peppermint does not overpower the drink’s balance of espresso and milk, or whatever nut juice gets you through the day (I usually go for almond).
Larry Legend, a conversationalist who also happens to work the front register, said the drink is among their most popular libations. Whether iced or served steaming, the drink is a reliable way of getting people “into the season,” he said.
Elf old fashioned at Lib’s Grill in Fulton
The usual customer seeking a drink at Lib’s Grill in Fulton tends to want something stiff to oil their joints.
“They come in and say I want a man’s drink,” said bartender Trevor Namie. But that’s not what the neighborhood bar is known for this time of year.
“We look at them and say, what about a ‘Buddy the Elf Old Fashioned’?” Namie said.
The cocktail is one of 15 added to the menu for the holiday season. Each beverage provides a playful twist to classic bar staples, with the old fashioned being among their most popular. The drink feels like something Will Ferrell would order in the timeless Christmas film, only to get belligerently drunk in the next scene after mistaking the cocktail for candy.
The rendition preserves the bitterness of an old fashioned, largely due to its mix of black walnut and aromatic bitters, but tempers its severity with a strong cinnamon and ginger flavoring. The cocktail also uses pecan-infused rum and orange essence.
Another drink worth noting: “Milk N’Cookies.” The new concoction is perfect for those looking for a creamy drink to cap off their dining experience, with its mix of amaretto, Stoli vanilla vodka and RumChata, a combination of rum, Mexican spice and dairy.
Oh, and it comes with sprinkles. It’s practically a cookie.
‘Turbo Time’ at Dutch Courage in Old Goucher
Whether you’re looking to quench a thirst for eggnog or a more refreshing drink this holiday season, Dutch Courage in the Old Goucher neighborhood has just the menu.
The gin-centric bar and eatery has added 13 seasonal drinks to their usual cocktail offerings.
My personal favorite is the Turbo Time, made by bartender Delsin Richardson, known by some as the “Sherry guy.” The South of Spain wine serves as an alternative way to balance out a cocktail relative to adding citrus.
The mix of sherry wines in the cocktail, coupled with a housemade merry syrup of raspberries, oregano, ginger and cinnamon gave the drink the aroma of fresh-cut grass, but in a bucolic running-through-the-field sort of way. The drink also contains aloe, lemon, rhubarb and New Orleans bitters to brighten the cocktail.
And for those looking for eggnog, Dutch Courage has plenty. The bar’s “D.C. Eggnog” provides a lighter twist on the traditional beverage. Sprinkled with nutmeg, cinnamon and other baking spices, the drink is served cold and in a seemingly smaller portion than others served on the menu.
The creamy dessert is cut by Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, rye from Virginia’s family-owned Catoctin Creek distillery and genepy, an herbal tasting liqueur.
The drink is a popular favorite for the holiday season, according to bartender Pat Turner.