During the holidays, sometimes you have to make the best with what's around.
Vodka Collins
Credit: Carey Jones

The holidays are quickly approaching, and with them, inevitable family gatherings. A good drink can go a long way toward smoothing over any awkward dynamics. But when you’re faced with only your uncle’s odd liquor cabinet, how can you make a great drink? Here are six of the bottles you’re likely to unearth, and the best way to make a drink using each of ‘em.

You’ve Got: Brandy you’ve never heard of
Make A: Hot toddy

Hot Toddy
Credit: Carey Jones

While many of us are fans of a whiskey hot toddy, brandy works just as well. And since hot toddies are as much about the garnishes as they are anything else—citrus and spice, not to mention the honey stirred in—it doesn’t really matter if the spirit isn’t top-notch. Just doctor it up until it tastes great.

Instructions: In a heat-safe glass, stir together 2 ounces of brandy, 1 teaspoon of honey, and a dash of Angostura bitters if you have them. Pour 2 ounces of hot water over the top. Squeeze in a big lemon wedge and add it to the drink, and garnish with any winter spices you'd like: a cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, allspice berries, and whatever else you fancy.

You’ve Got: Flavored vodka
Make A: Vodka Collins

Vodka Collins
Credit: Carey Jones

Absolut Citron, Stoli Blueberry, you name it—if there’s a liquor cabinet that hasn’t been updated in a decade or so, odds are it has a fruity vodka in it. Most aren’t bad, per se—modern-day drinkers just tend to prefer fruit and vodka, not fruit-flavored vodka. Luckily, lemon juice brightens up virtually any flavor, so transforming flavored vodka into a sparkling Collins couldn’t be easier. (Just don’t try this with vanilla vodka, because, ew.)

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 1 1/2 ounces of fruity vodka, 1 ounce of fresh lemon juice, and 1/2 an ounce of simple syrup. Shake until well-chilled, then strain into a tall glass with fresh ice. Top with 2 ounces of club soda, and garnish with whatever fruit or herbs you have handy.

You’ve Got: Sambuca (or ouzo, or raki, or arak…)
Make A: Sambuca ’75

Sambuca '75
Credit: Carey Jones

Top on the list of “liquor found on relatives’ bars” has to be the licorice-y Sambuca. (And depending on your family’s provenance, it might be the Greek ouzo, or the Turkish raki, or Israeli arak…there are plenty of them.) If a spine-tingling, strong anise spirit isn’t your jam, try it toned down in a French 75 variation, the aggressive flavors restrained and pleasant bubbling up alongside lemon and sparkling wine.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 1 ounce Sambuca, 1/2 ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1/4 of simple syrup. Shake that all up and strain into a champagne flute. Top with 3 ounces of sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon wheel.

You’ve Got: Amaretto
Make An: Amaretto & Ginger

Amaretto & Ginger
Credit: Carey Jones

Sweet and nutty, amaretto is a perennial after-dinner favorite, though to a modern drinker, it can seem a bit strange and sweet. So pairing it with gutsy, spicy ginger beer is a no-brainer. A lime garnish adds a little acid to cut the sweetness even more.

Instructions: In a tall glass with ice, combine 1 1/2 ounces of amaretto with 4 ounces of ginger beer. Garnish with a bunch of lime wheels.

You’ve Got: Canadian whisky you’ve never tried
Make A: Rye-Cranberry Cider

Rye Cranberry Cider
Credit: Carey Jones

Do you have an uncle who keeps his booze pantry stocked with Canadian Club or Seagram’s? Most Canadian whiskies are at least partially made from rye, which gives them a little spice; we love rye with fresh apple cider, and if you’ve got any cranberry hanging around for the holidays, so much the better.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 1 1/2 ounces of Canadian whiskey, 2 ounces of apple cider, 1/2 an ounce of 100 percent cranberry juice, and 1 ounce of club soda. Strain into a tall glass with fresh ice, and garnish with apple and/or cranberries.

You’ve Got: Limoncello
Make A: Stirred whiskey sour

Stirred Whiskey Sour
Credit: Carey Jones

Sticky-sweet limoncello isn’t the easiest to use in cocktails—you really have to use its sugar to your advantage. Swap it in as the sweetener in an Old Fashioned, for when a super-boozy whiskey drink feels too heavy.

Instructions: In a mixing glass with ice, combine 2 ounces bourbon (rye, Canadian whisky, or Irish whiskey will work too) and 1 ounce limoncello. Add a dash each of orange bitters and Angostura. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a glass without ice. Garnish with a twisted lemon peel.

    By Carey Jones and John D. McCarthy