Follow these steps to make a boozy hot cocoa bar

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Boozy hot cocoa at Nicky's Coal Fired in Nashville.

This is part of Southern Kitchen's 12 Days of Cookies and Cocktails series, which runs daily through Christmas Eve. Each day, we'll pair fun and festive cocktails with classic cookie recipes. Your boozy hot cocoa bar wouldn't be complete without homemade marshmallows.

It's hard to beat the festive nature of hot chocolate in the winter. That's especially the case if you add booze. It's even better if you lay out an array of garnishes and let your favorite party people make their own boozy hot chocolate. Here's how to do it. 

Pick your liquors

John Peet, general manager at Jane’s Hideaway and Jane’s On Top in Nashville, which becomes Candy Cane Jane’s for the holiday season, said his bartenders love to use Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee whiskey or peppermint vodka in hot chocolate.

Don't be afraid to spike the whipped cream either, unless there are kids at this party. "Whipped cream is king," Peet said. "An extra festive homemade whipped cream with some Louisa’s Liqueur is even better." Louisa's, from Green Brier Distillery, is flavored with aromas of caramel, coffee and pecans.

At Nicky's Coal Fired, also in Nashville, bartenders serve what they call Caribbean hot cocoa spiked with spiced rum and orange liqueur. 

Co-owner Caroline Galzin said fruit flavors, such as those in Orange Curaçao or Cointreau, complement hot chocolate perfectly. "Orange and chocolate are a classic Christmas pairing," she said. 

Coffee-flavored liqueurs are also a perfect match, such as Kahlua or Tia Maria. "The bitterness of coffee balances out the sweetness," Galzin said. "With hot chocolate, it's easy to turn it into a sugar bomb."

Whatever you pick, it's important to pick bold flavors, since heat, fat and chocolate can all combine to kill nuances in subtler booze. 

"That's why we use spiced rum," she said. "It's the same with Kahlua — if you're just drinking it on its own, Kahlua is a bit of a flavor punch."

And because heated alcohol tastes even boozier, lower-ABV spirits are often the best choice for hot drinks, she said. 

12 Days of Cookies:Spread good cheer with Southern Kitchen's upcoming blizzard of holiday cookies, cocktails

Pick your garnishes

You'll want a bevy of options for people to top their beverages with. That means fun things like candies, cinnamon sticks, whipped cream and marshmallows. You can even make your own marshmallows and cut them into cute shapes.

Over at Candy Cane Janes, it's all about more chocolate and peppermint, said Peet. "Fall and winter classic flavors such as cinnamon, orange, cranberry, rosemary, star anise or clove are all also good choices," he said. 

At Nicky's, Galzin favors cocoa nibs from Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. The nibs offer some bitterness to help offset hot cocoa's sweetness.

"But the toppings are where you can really go crazy," she said. "I say go nuts."

Other ideas include crushed candy bars, particularly Butterfingers, which crumble well. Crushed cookies are perfect, as are sprinkles and chocolate chips. Pop Rocks would be cool and retro, while shaved bitter chocolate and crushed peppermints would be classy. If you're going the classy route, consider mint leaves as well.

Use very good chocolate

Nicky's executive chef and co-owner Tony Galzin was once a pastry chef in Chicago, so you know the hot chocolate is going to be made to very specific specs. 

Caroline Galzin said her husband melts down disks of chocolate with 64% cacao content in whole milk with raw sugar and Dutch-processed dark cocoa powder.

They hold the hot chocolate and add the spirits to each cup right before serving. That's all topped with whipped cream, a candied orange peel and cocoa nibs.

Galzin recommends using premium chocolate as well, though she said mixing and matching is fine, too. If you're using powdered Hershey's hot chocolate mix, for example, go ahead and toss a couple of disks of higher-caliber chocolate in a pot with some milk and melt it down before adding your powder. 

"It doesn't have to be all high-end," she said.  

Once your hot chocolate is made in a big batch, keep it warm in a slow cooker or Crock-Pot. Add a ladle, then arrange an array of mugs or glasses close by with the toppings within easy reach. 

Now you're ready to party.

More:Throw the best retro Christmas party of your life with these tips from experts

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com