Making Spirits Bright: Festive Cocktails This Holiday Season in Franklin

A wise man once said that the most enduring Christmas traditions are “best enjoyed in the warm embrace of kith and kin,” right there with Uncle Eddie next to the egg nog. Indeed, ’tis the season for good tidings and great joy, and there’s no better place to make your spirits bright than here in Franklin. 

Back in November 2013, the legendary food writer Larry Olmsted proclaimed in Forbes that The Cocktail Revolution’s Next Stop is in Franklin, Tennessee. He was talking about Gray’s on Main, the former pharmacy restored as a three-story restaurant, bar, and live music venue. Since then, the bartenders there have educated scores of locals and visitors on the history of and innovations in spirits since Prohibition. In 2018, they added O’ Be Joyful, a sister tavern next door, that has become a destination in its own right as a place that takes its bourbons, tequilas, and gins seriously, with impressive allocations, inventive approaches, and a heart for sharing their favorites. Case in point: the holiday menus.

At Gray’s, it’s the “Late Harvest,” with Absalom corn whiskey, Nixta corn liqueur, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and Woodford chocolate bitters, with a splash of Cocchi di Torino red vermouth; “Legends of the Fall,” Suntory Japanese whiskey with Choya yuzu citrus and green tea liqueurs and a house-made plum wine reduction; and the “Stag’s Leap,” with Johnnie Walker high rye and double black Scotches, apple butter, ginger syrup, lemon, and Angostura bitters.

Next door at O’ Be Joyful, where you might find your Christmas cocktail served in an ornament, try the “Alright List,” Matthew McConaughey’s Longbranch bourbon, Ballotin chocolate mint whiskey, Cynar Amaro, and a Fernet rinse, garnished with a candy cane and a drop of salt water to brighten the flavors; the sangria-esque “Jingle Juice,” with prosecco, fresh pomegranate syrup, and Copper and Kings’ pear brandy; or the “What is Myrrh?” with local Walton’s vodka, Cocchi Americano aperitif, Lo-fi Gentian Amaro, and house-made clove and cinnamon syrup. It’s worth noting that OBJ also places an emphasis on a range of non-alcoholic and low-ABV drinks for those who want to enjoy the artistry but don’t care to imbibe.

At The Harpeth Hotel, the main bar at 1799 Kitchen & Cocktails is offering the “Blizzard of ’51,” with New Amsterdam gin, St. Elder Pamplemousse, and Creme de Violet paired with lemon, simple syrup, and foamed egg white; the “Over the River and Through the Woods,” with spiced rum, lime, pineapple, apple cider, cinnamon syrup, and grated nutmeg; and the “Aurora Borealis,” with mezcal, gin, lavender, and lime. But the star of the season at The Harpeth might be at McGavock’s, a daytime coffee bar and bistro that will feature a mimosa flight (pear nectar and thyme, blood orange mint, and raspberry fizz) and at night convert to The World’s Best Cup of Coffee…A Christmas Bar

Wrapped around a classic holiday movie theme, there you’ll find nostalgia-inspiring drinks like the Jelly of the Month (in a jelly jar) with gin, rosemary syrup, lemon, and raspberry jam; the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee,” with local cold brew, bourbon, and Demerara syrup in an NYC Greek coffee cup; and “Ralphie’s Red Ryder,” vodka, pomegranate, lemon, and ginger beer with a side of Boba pearls in a shotgun shell glass.

Around the corner at Culaccino on East Main, the “Cula Weather” features Franklin Distillery vodka, handcrafted Limoncello, honey, and prosecco; the “Round About” is High West bourbon, Laird’s apple brandy, Cocchi Torino, sherry, and maple syrup with a splash of bitters; and the “Kiss from a Rosemary” includes Dumplin Creek gin, Ex Gratia liqueur, strawberry, lemon, and egg white.

On the other side of the hotel on Second Avenue North, stop by Saint Goose if you’re seeking your own cocktail inspirations. Along with one of the most unique and expansive wine and spirits selections in town, they offer a wide range of Amaros, bitters (think cardamom, black walnut, and Aztec chocolate), along with custom gift baskets that can include stem and barware, cocktail books and other fine gifts.

McConnell Hospitality Group restaurants have become mainstays for elevated libations as well. At Red Pony on Main Street, they’re highlighting a traditional Polish holiday drink, Kompot z Suszu. It starts with dried apples, apricots, cherries, plums, and golden raisins, boiled and steeped with cinnamon, allspice, clove, and mace, then finished with honey. After it cools, they add fresh lemon juice and a “festive” amount of local Pickers Vodka. One of the truths of the bar business is that “vodka pays the bills,” and they don’t know how to pronounce Kompot z Suszu, so the drink has been dubbed the “Pays the Bills.”

At Cork & Cow on Fourth Avenue South, it’s a drink from the southern hemisphere, the Chilean “Cola de Mono.” Akin to egg nog in texture but including no eggs, it’s a holiday treat of milk, sugar, and coffee with cinnamon, clove, and vanilla, plus a generous portion of Gustoso aged rum is added. From the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico, and aged in bourbon, sherry, and new oak barrels, the three-year-old rum brings all the Christmas flavors together in a classic milk punch.

Amendment XVIII has brought late-night cocktails to the next level in the Westhaven community. From a Teddy Roosevelt-inspired “Cuba Libation” with bacon fat-washed rum, allspice dram, citrus, Cynar and Fernet aperitifs, Ango and mole bitters, and a garnish of candied bacon, to a Prohibition coffee cocktail with Shane Irish whiskey, coffee concentrate, vanilla, allspice and tobacco bitters with heavy cream and nutmeg, the drinks here celebrate our constitutional right to drink. The New Orleans-style gin fizz called the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” is also worth a try—clove and peppercorn-infused gin, Chartreuse, pistachio milk, and citrus, spices, and bitters—presents an unexpected ensemble.

Out at Leiper’s Fork Distillery, the Porch bar is featuring three holiday favorites rooted in their Bottled in Bond bourbon: a maple-cinnamon sour with barrel-aged maple syrup enhanced with cinnamon and a hint of fresh-squeezed lemon, a spiced cherry mule with Simple Times natural mixer; and a hot apple mulled cider. And at Company Distilling in Thompson’s Station, the pomegranate martini centers on their Ghost Rail gin, fresh juices, and simple syrup for a timeless treat served straight-up. Both of these distilleries are winning awards and national attention for the quality of spirits they’re producing and are worth a visit.

Throughout the season, events will fill Main Street with the magic of the Yuletide, from the Christmas Tree Lighting on the Square December 2 to the Kiwanis Christmas Parade December 3, the 37th Annual Dickens of a Christmas festival December 10 & 11, and all the shopping, dining and exterior illumination one could hope for…often best enjoyed with a cup of cheer.