Lift Your Cocktail Glass in a Toast to Hanukkah!

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Hanukkah is not, as some believe, the Jewish Christmas, although both holidays occur around winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

Because Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar, holidays arrive on a different date each year. This year, the eight-day celebration begins at sunset, December 10, and ends on December 18. The eight days commemorate the victory of the Hebrew Maccabean army taking back the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the larger, stronger Greek-Syrian army during the second century BCE.
The Hebrew victors prepared to rededicate the Temple (Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew), but there was only enough oil to burn the sacred flame for one day. Instead, the oil lasted for eight days and nights, until more could be obtained. To commemorate this miracle, Jewish families gather for eight nights to light the eight candles of the menorah, lighting one on the first night and adding another each night until all eight light up the night.

Hanukkah, as a minor holiday, isn’t even mentioned in the Jewish Bible, but because of its proximity to the culturally ubiquitous Christmas holiday season, some Christmas traditions, such as gift giving, have become a part of Hanukkah. And like Christmas, it’s a time to indulge in special festive food and drink. Because of the story of the miracle of the oil, fried foods, especially latkes, which are savory potato pancakes similar to hash browns, and sufganiyot, which are fried jelly doughnuts, are as much a part of the festivities as lighting the candles. Dairy foods are also popular.
Cocktails, too, can have a festive Hanukkah holiday theme.

For the younger set, special non-alcoholic drinks can add to the fun. Blue and white are the traditional colors of Hanukkah, so for the children, a blue mocktail made with Kool-Aid is fun and delicious. To make a Blue Star Spritz, combine one part Blue-Raspberry Kool-Aid, one part white grape juice and one part non-sweetened lemon or lime sparkling water. Serve over ice in a fancy glass.

For older kids, or adults who don’t want alcohol, try a Maccabee Mojito. Muddle a half-cup of blueberries and three or four mint leaves in the bottom of a tall glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar and the juice of half a lime. Stir well, add a half-cup of water and fill the glass with crushed ice. Top off with lime or lemon fizzy water and garnish with a mint leaf.

For those who wish to imbibe stronger cocktails, there are many creative options that connect to Hanukkah traditions.

One important Hanukkah tradition is a game of chance that uses a dreidel, a small spinning top decorated with Hebrew letters. Chocolate coins covered in gold foil, called gelt, a Yiddish word for money, serve as the betting currency. While playing (and eating the candy) players might enjoy a great cocktail using the cinnamon-flavored sweet liquor Goldschlager, which contains flakes of real gold. To make a Golden Gelt Cocktail, mix one part Goldschlager with two parts vanilla-flavored vodka in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and pour into a martini glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

A traditional kosher plum brandy, slivovitz, is strongly flavored and usually 100-proof. It was popular in the old country 100 years ago. Some call it Jewish kerosene. But in small quantities, the sweet, fruity flavor makes it a good mixer. To make a Slivovitz Shamash, mix one ounce of chilled brewed coffee, one ounce of heavy cream, and one ounce of slivovitz. Shake well in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Strain into a martini class and garnish with a little cocoa powder.

For those who can’t contemplate a Jewish holiday without thinking about Manischewitz wine (and, no, a spoon really won’t stand up in this super-sweet wine), try using it to make cocktails. For a Menorah Margarita, combine two ounces of Manischewitz (or other traditional-style sweet kosher wine, grape or blackberry) with one-half ounce of white tequila, a one-half ounce of triple sec and one-half ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Stir, then pour into a margarita glass rimmed with kosher salt and filled with crushed ice.

Finally, since potatoes–potato pancakes or potato kugel, not Tater Tot casseroles–have an important place in Hanukkah meals, a simple and classic martini made with potato vodka could become a new part of the holiday tradition. To make a Hanukkah Martini, measure two ounces of potato vodka and one ounce of vermouth into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake well. Pour into a martini glass. Add a couple of olives, preferably from Israel.

Remember, it’s a holiday, but always drink responsibly. And as you sip, lift up your glass and say “L’Chaim!” To life! ■

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