Grinchhopper (a non-alcoholic creamy peppermint cocktail)
This is NOT a Christmas cocktail.
I want one thing to be abundantly clear before I talk about this week’s cocktail: this is not a Christmas drink.
Yes, it’s based on a Grasshopper, which you will find on basically every holiday cocktail list ever written. A cold, chocolate mint drink that is often made with ice cream, it seems a strange choice for the season, though I’ll concede that the drink’s creamy richness fits into the overall decadence of the winter holidays.
But regardless of its similarity to a Grasshopper, this drink is not a Christmas drink.
Because my birthday is tomorrow (the 12th), and I will not let even my very own newsletter be taken over by Christmas creep. I have spent my entire life making it very clear that the Christmas season, though I love it, does not start until my birthday is over.
When I was little, this wasn’t really that difficult. There was no internet back in those halcyon days of yore, and the gifts I would receive had to be purchased at an actual store. Toys were bought at brick and mortar Toys ‘R’ Us stores, while American Girl Dolls were ordered by toll free 1-800 number or by checks you sent in the mail. My parents, to their infinite credit, were excellent at making my birthday feel special and separate, my mother especially (to the point of making sure that she gave birth to me 2 weeks early so I didn’t end up a day-after-Christmas baby). Throughout my entire childhood, she managed to pull off my birthday party, then completely decorate the house, plan and executing a Christmas dinner for around 20 people, and somehow get me and my brother through end of semester finals, all while managing a few dozen holiday parties at my step-family’s restaurant.
We would usually get the Christmas tree on my actual birthday, which was my secret ritual of taking a bow and stepping out of the the spotlight, yielding the stage to the holiday season. Really rather gracious of me, don’t you think?
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With every passing year, however, trying to metaphorically close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and shout “LA LA LA LA LA LA” to drown out the “Fa la la la la la!” became more futile. By the time that I became an adult who was planning, paying for, and throwing my own birthday parties, Black Friday had become so firmly ensconced as the “official” beginning of the holiday, that I pretty much gave up on insisting that anyone except my very closest friends, family, and partners indulge me in this, and then only in a half-serious way.
This year, however, has been frankly outrageous with Christmas creep. Politicians and pundits were advising people in September to order their gifts early because of global supply chain issues, because people have been buying so much stuff for the last 2 years while stuck at home. Not to mention that Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General who was hired to screw up the delivery of mail in ballots during the last election, is still running the postal service due to some outdated rigmarole around how that position is filled. These days one needs extra time to account for USPS losing your stuff, for you to report it lost, order it again, and cross your fingers that this time it shows up before Easter.
Which is why this year I am insisting on hoarding December for myself at least through the rest of the week.
That is why this is not a Christmas drink, even though yes, you can absolutely serve it at Christmas, or your annual family cookie swap, or ugly sweater cocktail party, or next year’s Chanukah dinners, or whatever thing you do in December.
For my birthday in 2020, I quarantined for 2 weeks so I could go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my best friend and give her a hug for the first time in nearly a year, two things that I used to do so often that I’d never even thought of them as events in and of themselves. Afterward, we walked across the park and sat in her living room and she made me watch the first two episodes of Ted Lasso. Her husband showed up with Vietnamese food and before I knew it, we were five episodes in and I was full of pho and nem and perhaps genuinely, easily happy for the first time in 9 months.
This year, I wanted to have a small “après-ski themed” dinner party, by which I mean 5 people eating fondue and drinking Acid League Wine Proxies in Fair Isle sweaters, chevron quilted puffy vests, and Norwegian rose patterned long underwear. The so-called “Golden Age of Après” was the 60s and 70s, when privileged and pretty people went to ski resorts as much to party in the lodge as to spend time on the slopes, and a new, contemporary take on the look has become popular again in the last few years. While I have no desire to risk my knees skiing, I have been taking fantasy vacations via TripAdvisor and Instagram internet trips to ritzy but rustic Alpine hotels with fireplaces, hot tubs, and restaurants with big pots of gooey, melted cheese.
It was researching a menu consistent with Alpine cuisine and the après-ski experience that led me to the Grasshopper. I wanted to make a drink utilizing Harmony Alpine Digestif, a non-alcoholic version of the Italian Alpine amaro Fernet-Branca, because it’s one of my favorite booze-alternatives and I feel like I need to develop a dozen recipes with it to convince you all to buy it so that the producers keep making it. Searching for cocktail recipes that use Fernet-Branca that I could use as inspiration, I discovered that a number of bartenders are making Grasshoppers more hip, complex, and sophisticated by adding the super herbal, medicinal peppermint bitter digestif (or its even mintier cousin, Brancamenta) to the usual chocolate-mint-cream concoction.
The Grasshopper hit its peak of popularity in the 1970s, until quite recently considered the absolute nadir of cocktail culture, when the fashion was for drinks that disguised the taste of spirits with candy and artificial fruit flavored liqueurs, sugar, coconut, and cream. Now that bartenders have worked through every single permutation of pre-prohibition and tiki cocktails, they’re mining the disco era, reviving and “fixing” Harvey Wallbangers, Midori Sours, Brandy Alexanders into more refined, balanced drinks that are still playful and colorful, but appeal to the more sophisticated contemporary palate.
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All of this research made me excited to try making a creamy, minty cocktail with Harmony Alpine. Instead of a straight Grasshopper imitation, however, I wanted the flavor profile of a peppermint marshmallow or white chocolate candy cane bark, for two reasons: 1) while chocolate mint is great, creamy mint is underrated and underused; and 2) we don’t yet have a decent booze-free replacement for creme de cacao, the chocolate liqueur used in a traditional Grasshopper. Chocolate syrup has entirely the wrong texture, body, and flavor, and would taste like chocolate milk. Clear chocolate extract is hard to come by at all, and one that is both alcohol-free and tastes good is even more difficult to find. But peppermint extract, even the non-alcoholic kind, is readily available at most supermarkets, and while there are varying levels of price and presumed quality, most of them have the same strong, bracing blast of flavor.
To start, I tried making a white chocolate milk by melting white chocolate chips in whole milk, and then allowing the mixture to cool in the fridge. This was fine, until the cooling step, at which point the white chocolate re-solidified and separated from the milk, and it was a way too sweet when it wasn’t hot. Then I tried melting marshmallows in milk and letting that cool into a usable base, but while it tasted pretty great on its own, it took an absurd marshmallow to milk ratio (1 marshmallow: 2 ounces of milk) to yield a thick, creamy body, and the sweet, pillowy flavor was completely overwhelmed by the peppermint extract and Harmony Alpine. So I went back to the basics— whole milk, a bit of heavy cream, and good old-fashioned Liber & Co. Classic Gum Syrup. The combination yielded a just lighter than milkshake body with a fluffy head of foam. To make the drink a green, I didn’t want to use food coloring, so I whisked in a bit of matcha before shaking, and it came out the pale, pistachio green you see in the picture, plus the matcha added another dimension to the flavor that made the whole drink taste exactly like white chocolate peppermint bark.
I’m not going to put on any false modesty the day before my birthday, so I’ll tell you frankly: this drink is divine.
It’s definitely too rich to be “crushable”— the current bartender parlance for something that you can throw back easily and order another one (or four)— but it’s so deliciously fresh and frothy and ice creamy that I almost didn’t get the photo for it before I just had to drink it. (And I’d been experimenting with it all week long, so it was far from the first one I’d drunk.)
I’ve also included a variation that can be made with Táche Pistachio Milk, which is not as creamy, and will not fluff up as much because it lacks the cream’s fat to give structure to bubbles, but it is vegan and still tastes fantastic. Do not replace the dairy milk with pistachio but still use the heavy cream in this recipe, or try to sub out the heavy cream with another vegan fat; I tried a number of combinations and non-dairy milks, creamers, and fats, from coconut cream to soy creamer, and adding in a fat always produced a weird, bitter-rancid note that was not pleasant. The pistachio milk has a wonderful flavor and texture, and will foam up just fine on its own.
Because it’s also not quite a Grasshopper, and, as I have said before, is is also NOT A CHRISTMAS DRINK, my working title for this was “Grinchhopper,” a bit of me teasing myself for my Grinch-iness. But after a couple of weeks of giggling to myself about the name while I shook up the most recent version of the drink, I’ve come to really like the absurdity and the sound of the name, so Grinchhopper it is.
3 ounces whole milk (or 2%, but please do not use skim)
½ ounce heavy cream
½ ounce Harmony Alpine Digestif
½ ounce Liber & Co. Classic Gum Syrup
¼ - ½ teaspoon peppermint extract to taste
¼ teaspoon culinary grade matcha powder
Pour milk, cream, Harmony Alpine, gum syrup, and peppermint extract into cocktail shaker.
Sprinkle the matcha powder over the top of the liquid. You want to avoid dropping a compact chunk of matcha into the liquid (though this is fixable if you do, it just takes a bit more whisking and shaking when you prepare the drink).
Using a long, narrow whisk, preferably one that reaches to the bottom of the shaker, vigorously whisk together the ingredients, making sure to break up any clumps of matcha powder bigger than a mustard seed. (Don’t worry if there are tiny clumps of matcha, or pockets of floating fat from the cream— they will get broken up in the next step.)
Add ice to shaker and shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds, until cocktail is well chilled, and the drink has taken on a uniform, pale green hue.
Strain into Nick and Nora or coupe glass.
Replace the 3 ounces of whole milk and ½ ounce of heavy cream with 4 ounces of Táche Original Blend Pistachio Milk (NOT the Original Unsweetened!).
Despite my affection for après-ski as an aspirational aesthetic, I am not a skier. I tried it, once, when I was a junior or senior in high school, and some friends invited me on a little weekend ski trip. After a few hours on the bunny hill living in perpetual terror that my knees would go off in opposite directions taking their tattered ligaments with them, I rented a snowboard for the rest of the weekend. Though I didn’t get that much of an opportunity to do it, seeing as I lived in Tennessee, I loved snowboarding and even bought my own refurbished board and everything. I hauled it with me when I moved to Atlanta, and then to New York, but after taking it out for the first time in 8 or 9 years on a snowboarding trip upstate and having a miserable time trying to relearn while awkwardly hopping down flat areas on a mountain that was better for cross country skiing than downhill carving, I decided that I’d missed my window to be a good snowboarder and sold it.
Skiing still terrifies me, which is probably why I was captivated by a vividly written article in the New Yorker about the skiing World Cup race at Hahnenkamm in the Tyrolean Alps, and the associated days of partying in Kitzbühel, the Austrian town at the base of the mountain. “The Wild Carnival at the Heart of Skiing’s Most Dangerous Race” by Nick Paumgarten is so evocative that, at least with a Grinchhopper in hand, you’ll feel like you’re really there in the Alps enjoying the lodge parties and rubbing elbows with the best skiers in the world.
For non-athletes, Hahnenkamm is something like Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, and the Kentucky Derby rolled into one: a days of massive parties where everyone gets dressed up, drinks too much beer, and eats a lot food that will tax your liver and clog your arteries. Even though I don’t drink alcohol anymore, I still think it sounds like an absolute blast. The race itself, however, is no party. My anxious knees have always understood the danger of downhill skiing, but until I read this article, I’d never realized the incredible difficulty of the sport at the competitive level; after all, aren’t you just letting gravity push you down a hill? Oh, no, no, no— it turns out to be much, much harder, and, in the way of the best sports narrative, potential so much more heartbreaking than I’d ever imagined until I read this fascinating piece. I’ve now read it at least 5 times.
Though I will issue a content warning: I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a reference in the second paragraph of this article to a pretty gruesome injury sustained by a Canadian Olympic skier during the 1989 race, so be aware of that. I encourage you to pause, take a few deep breaths, and continue the story with the knowledge that that’s the last time you’ll have to deal with anything nearly so grisly. (The author didn’t, but honestly probably should have, mentioned that the skier, Brian Stemmle, rather miraculously survived and went on to ski the next 9 World Cup seasons before retiring. He’s doing just fine.)
Until next week, keep Christmas creep at bay, yourself cuddled up and warm, your drinks zero-proof, and your five o’clocks eternal!