Holiday Pairings Like a Pro
How to keep holiday guests happy with expertly chosen wines, cocktails and more
The best bartenders are consummate hosts. They’ve mastered perhaps the most vital part of their trade—making guests feel welcome, anticipating their needs and surpassing their wants. This is one of many arenas in which Beverage Director Kellie Thorn excels. Thorn is the guiding force behind the bars in Hugh Acheson’s restaurants, and you can typically find her slinging drinks as bar manager of Midtown’s Empire State South.
Like many folks in the service industry, Thorn finds herself playing hostess even at home during the holidays. Each year she oversees a holiday dinner for friends who otherwise have nowhere else to turn, and the service she provides at this spectacular annual party will have you wishing for an invitation.
These holiday dinners bring people from all walks of life to the table, and Thorn is conscientious of serving drinks to both complement the meal and appease a wide variety of palates. She provided us with helpful advice for how to pair drinks with a decadent meal in a way that is equal parts approachable and appropriate.
“I think variety is the key, and Champagne. Most everyone loves Champagne,” says Thorn. And in general, she avoids turning the evening into a lecture on the merits of each drink poured, though she’s happy to expound when prompted. “I don’t really offer much explanation unless it’s sought out. I like to keep it casual,” she says.
It all begins with having something ready to serve the moment guests walk through the door. “I will typically mix up a batch of 50/50 martinis, and I keep a bottle of Fino sherry and Champagne chilled and ready to pop, but a pre-batched, seasonal punch can also do the trick,” she says. “Having drinks ready for your guests upon arrival not only sets a convivial tone, but it also allows you to continue your prep and entertain without appearing stretched thin. By doing all of your beverage prep and planning well in advance, you look effortless when guests arrive.”
Typically, Thorn serves these preliminary drinks alongside a cheese plate and snacks, and she’s sure to keep around filtered water, sparkling water and another non-alcoholic drink to be certain no one finds themselves excluded (not to mention dehydrated).
Like any wise bon vivant, Thorn exercises taste when serving wine with dinner. For a typical holiday meal (or an atypical one—this year she’s planning on steak and lobster), she pairs reds and whites according to the kind of protein being served. In the case of poultry or seafood, she reaches for off-dry Riesling and Champagne, the latter of which she believes to be underrated for food service. “It’s such a versatile food wine, and it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves,” she says. For red meat, she grabs a Gamay, a red wine that is interesting and complex but won’t steal the show and will instead make a perfect accompaniment.
After such a lavish meal, Thorn is disinclined to serve dessert. Instead, she offers a little something to help guests begin digesting the feast they’ve just completed. She pours a cordial glass of Amaro Braulio alongside a shot of espresso. “It doubles as a dessert and a digestif,” she says. Even then, the night typically continues, and Thorn has one last go-to that she loves as a nightcap. “X.O. Cognac,” she says. “It’s complex, special and deeply satisfying.”
MASTER THE SIMPLEST CLASSIC COCKTAIL: A 50/50 MARTINI
This holiday season, treat your guests to a perfectly made martini, just as Kellie Thorn would do it
Makes 1 cocktail
1 part Fords gin
1 part Dolin dry vermouth
Olive or cocktail onion, for garnish
Stir gin and dry vermouth over ice. Strain and serve with an olive or cocktail onion.
STORY & PHOTOS: Jodi Cash