I’m not debating the intentions of the lyrics here; that’s been covered, rehashed, and argued-over elsewhere on the internet. (I will, however, say that it’s quite interesting that the original filmed version reversed the gender roles, according to this fascinating history of the song on The Awl.) It’s really that one line—”Say, what’s in this drink?”—that’s simultaneously creepy and hilarious, and depending on who’s singing it, you can either take it as someone wanting to get completely blotto or something a lot more sinister.
A number of duos have been taking a crack at the song recently, attempting to displace the classically lecherous Dean Martin version, and let’s face it: the pairings on these songs are all a little weird. I quickly deleted Rufus Wainwright and Sharon van Etten’s plodding dirge from my holiday playlist, but I always keep the Zooey Deschanel-Leon Redbone one on repeat (because we all know how I feel about Elf), and am partial to the James Taylor version, despite the saccharine presence of Natalie Cole. Even in his silver fox years, James is quite the charmer.
So when I decided to make a cocktail that would cause my holiday guests to ask, “Say, what’s in this drink?”, I came at it from the James Taylor perspective: a charming, slightly mischievous, but still good-hearted host. I wanted to create a taste so intriguing, so curious, and still so good that my friends and family couldn’t help but ask for seconds. And yes, it would still be a festively potent mix that would get you a little tipsier than you intended. (Because if you know me at all, you know I love to get tipsy.)
And the secret ingredient here that makes you ask the all-important question? It’s Chartreuse, an botanical French liqueur still made by monks to this day. It’s a little herbal, a little sweet, and a little mysterious. If you’re a fan of vermouth and Pernod, think of Chartreuse as a more exotic cousin of that family. At the liquor store, you’ll find green and yellow versions: green is slightly more vegetal, and yellow’s slightly sweeter, so take that into consideration when plunking down money for a bottle.
In this cocktail, the herbal notes of the Chartreuse mix with homemade cinnamon syrup—so easy to make yourself—and a few splashes of bitters for balance. Both the classic Angostura bitters or orange bitters blend well here, but lavender or rhubarb bitters could be fun if you’ve got ‘em. The crowning touch? Champagne, of course—it wouldn’t be the holidays without a little bubbly. If you want to cut down on the alcohol content of the drink, it’s permissible to replace the wine with ginger ale or ginger beer.
It’s time to grab a cocktail shaker and get started. Let someone put some records on while you pour, and it’s up to you if you want to divulge the secrets of what exactly’s in this drink.
Say, What’s in this Drink?
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Makes 2 drinks
- 1/2 cup green or yellow chartreuse
- 1/4 cup cinnamon simple syrup (recipe follows below)
- 1 cup Champagne or other sparkling wine
- a few splashes Angostura or orange bitters
Fill two martini glasses with ice water and set aside.
Shake the chartreuse and simple syrup together in an ice-filled cocktail shaker.
Discard the ice water in the martini glasses and strain the chilled chartreuse and simple syrup into the glasses, dividing evenly between the two.
Pour Champagne into each glass to fill, and splash a few drops of bitters on top of each cocktail to garnish.
Serve immediately, and have a second drink if you don’t care what the neighbors might think.
Cinnamon Simple Syrup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes, including steeping time
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
- 1 cup (7 oz.) granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cinnamon stick
Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
Add the cinnamon stick and continue to heat and stir occasionally until the syrup comes to a simmer.
Remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for at least 1 hour to allow the cinnamon to infuse. Remove the cinnamon stick before using.
Alternatively, the syrup can be made up to a week ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Simple syrup will keep for at least a month (truly nearly indefinitely) in the fridge.