Drink Ideas: How To Hack Your Parents' Liquor Cabinet

How to make the most of your parents' dismal liquor cabinet

'Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the kitchen

Not a cocktail was stirring

Cue moaning and bitchin'.

It's not like you need a cocktail. The situation is not that dire. It's just that after all the holiday prepping, packing, dashing to catch the jam-packed plane, train, bus or highway that will ferry you family-ward, followed by some mildly invasive commentary on your appearance and/or punctuality upon arrival, an adult beverage would not be at all unwelcome. No indeed.

Problem is, it took so long to fight the throngs of fellow merrymakers that all the nearby bars and bottle shops have long since shuttered for the night. So it looks like it's down to Mom and Dad's (or your in-laws', Auntie's or Grammy and Pop-Pop's) liquor stash and well . . .

Look, I scored in the in-law department. When we stay with my husband's older sister, we never have to worry about where our next sturdy beverage is coming from. Crown Royal and Five Alive on arrival (the house drink we've dubbed the "Cinq Vive"), Manhattans administered as needed and if the evening progresses apace, perhaps Pappy Van Winkle might make an appearance. On the flip side, at another (recently, sadly departed) family member's home, the selection of refreshments was usually limited to magnums of white Zinfandel with optional ice and Splenda, or a fistful of melatonin and a pillow.

And then there's the middle ground, which I suspect is most frequently trod. The liquor cabinets there aren't so much a graveyard as they are a low-proof limbo populated by obscure bottles bought by or thrust upon cocktail party hosts several decades back: It's a rogue's gallery of Cherry Heering, crème de menthe, Dubonnet, Galliano, amaretto, Drambuie and vermouth that was last cracked when MacGyver was still on the air. Speaking of—it'll take his sort of ingenuity to get through this. Because though you could technically swig any of these hurt-locker libations straight, don't you deserve better?

In the interest of elevating your (our) holiday desperation drinking, I've enlisted the counsel of two beverage pros—Steva Casey, bar manager of the Satellite and Saturn in Birmingham, Alabama, and R.H. Weaver, maker of Weaver Family Whey and bar manager of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina—and presented them with a list of ingredients I have encountered in my late-night stabs at the edges of suburban sobriety.

The liquors: cream sherry, Cherry Heering, crème de menthe, Sambuca, Dubonnet, vermouth that was opened at least five years ago, watered-down Crown Royal, Galliano, amaretto.

The mixers: bottled lemon juice, 2 percent milk, pickle juice, Splenda (doctor wants them to cut down on sugar), tea (probably Lipton), standard baking spices, some dried Italian seasoning, salt and pepper, vinegar, jelly, cooking sherry, olive brine, pancake syrup, vanilla, ketchup, hard peppermint candies/candy canes.

The tools: no strainers or shakers but yes to ice and a microwave.

We need a shot, stat. What should we take?

Weaver: Sambuca.

"My parents are divorced, so this will be uncomfortable. I'm thinking pass-out time will be in fast order. I'll slam those back while I scour for other ingredients to play mixologist."

Casey: Galliano, Dubonnet or vermouth.

"It's going to taste the most consistent of all of the 'We saw a fun recipe in Southern Living in 1974, made one round for our Christmas party that year and haven't touched it since' type of booze," she says. She also maintains that the Dubonnet and vermouth may actually have benefitted from the time lapse. "Because they've been open since the Reagan administration, now they are super oxidized, which is not a bad thing to some (me) people. They don't taste the same as when they were opened or what people expect vermouth to taste like, but instead they have taken on an aged sherry characteristic."

How can we mix a proper drink?

Weaver: a warm sloe gin and tea cocktail.

"Getting sleepy-drunk is in order. That's a job for a soothing, warm drink. A tranquilizer. Nothing too exciting." He recalls discovering his parents' laundry room liquor stash as a kid and spying a hefty bottle of sloe gin. He advises, "Add a little Dubonnet (if it's rouge), hot tea, a dash of milk with some pancake syrup; express a lemon peel; douse with some baking spices or even black pepper. Voila! Fancy as f*ck!"

Alternately, he says that crème de menthe warmed with milk and a little jelly (especially strawberry Smucker's) "wouldn't suck," but also correctly notes that a can or bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility. "I'd use that instead of the jelly for a boozy hot chocolate with crushed peppermint."

Casey: Assume there's a vodka stash.

"You know it's there," she says, noting that she would add Galliano and orange juice for a proper Harvey Wallbanger. Barring that, "I would definitely also take some hot tea, milk and amaretto while hiding in the den watching Die Hard. Find that one Coke Zero your mom has hidden in the back of the fridge and make a Cherry Heering and Coke Zero highball."

What's a general formula for success?

Casey: herbal with bubbles of some kind, sweet with acidic, hot with sweet.

"Teas and coffees are acidic on their own, so if you're using them to mask your feelings (aka sneak drink) about the holidays, go with sweet rather than herbal. Take that peppermint, melt it in hot tea, add that cream sherry and a little pancake syrup, and sit back and listen to your dad talk about the importance of your financial health. Again."

Anything else?

Weaver and Casey: Be prepared.

Casey gives full props to the woman who birthed her—and the TSA for allowing liquor minis in carry-on luggage. "My mama taught me to be prepared to live out of a bag for a day when I'm traveling, so I always pack essentials, like an extra pair of clean socks and a tiny bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel," she says.

Weaver, now a parent himself, spends his holidays locally but still makes certain to pack properly. "I will most likely have a flask on my person with some brown water at all times. A little nip here and there can keep both spirit and body warm through the coldness of family winter."

Cheers to that. Have a go-to emergency cocktail? Tell @TastingTable on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #TTstruggledrink.