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Mike Zavatto’s Brandy Alexander. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

My parents were ritualistic in their cocktail-making. I’m sure that if they were still stirring up their favorites, the experimental riffs executed by today’s mixologists would fall flat by comparison. They happily cleaved to a short, tight list of regularly rotating options, and that suited them just fine. For all my years of writing about cocktails, somehow it seems I’ve arrived at almost exactly that same state of affairs — at Christmastime, at least.

A prime-meat butcher who owned a sweet, efficient little grocery-deli-butcher shop called West Neck Market on Shelter Island, my dad, in all his practicality, named the place for the road it sat on. But everyone called it Mike’s, after him, a methodical, entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself kind of guy. Born during the Great Depression to Italian immigrants not so long off the boat, he took great pleasure in the little luxuries afforded him from building a good business — cocktails were one such extra. 

On certain weeknights, he and my mom would indulge in a Rob Roy and a cigarette each, sitting at the kitchen table and discussing the day, shuttered behind the according slatted doors that separated them from the family room (and, you know, the kids). Sometimes they’d have a Rusty Nail. If they saved drinks for after dinner, perhaps a little B&B served in mini snifter-like glasses.

But at Christmas? There was only one cocktail to be had, and it was as expected and certain as the Douglas fir in the family room: the Brandy Alexander. And oh, how luxurious that drink seemed! A simple trio of ingredients, but three of the least used and most decadent for drinks: brandy, crème de cacao and cream, topped with a zippy little spritz of nutmeg, falling on the frothy top like the flakes in a snow globe. 

I still make it, every holiday. Sometimes in giant batches when we have a crowd (because three-ingredient cocktails are the easiest to scale up or down), sometimes just for my husband and me, its baking-spice pop of nutmeg punctuating what’s become one of our familiar smells of the season. You don’t have to use cognac — any good aged brandy will do just fine. But you know, if Mike were here? He’d give you a sly smile and tell you: Splurge on the little luxuries.

The Brandy Alexander of Baldwin Road

Prep Time 1 minute
Serves 1 cocktail


  • 1 oz V.S.O.P. Cognac
  • 1 oz dark crème de cacao
  • 1 oz heavy cream (or half and half, if you prefer)
  • grated fresh nutmeg, for garnish


  • In a shaker filled with ice, pour in the Cognac, crème de cacao and heavy cream.
  • Shake very well, until chilled and frothy — a good 15 seconds.
  • Strain into a coupe glass.
  • Using a mircoplane, shave a little bit of fresh nutmeg over the top. Drink with people you love.