I was driving to the gym the other morning, listening to a story on NPR about various Thanksgiving foods (wow, does this mean I’m really an adult now?), and a chef began discussing how deeply underrated cranberries are. This woman was fervently passionate about those sour, little berries and how they can and should be used year-round for a myriad of things. While cranberries are typically only in season late summer through fall, she was insistent that they can be frozen and make a fabulous feature in poultry dishes, breads and more, and centuries ago they were a staple in the diets of Americans. This got me thinking, as I am hosting my first-ever Thanksgiving this year: How can I incorporate those little tart, acidic balls of joy into more of my creations, namely, cocktails? I got to work in my libation laboratory and came up with a few delights, just in time for you to dazzle your guests this holiday season with some cranberry love.
Let’s make cranberries great again.
Make your holiday celebration themed AF by infusing cranberries in your vodka prior to your event, because, when all else fails, everyone will drink a vodka soda. Cranberry-infused vodka has a glorious burgundy hue and takes the guesswork out of crafting cocktails with multiple ingredients. Simply heat cranberries, raw sugar (or even turbinado or demerara sugar), water and a few orange peels in a saucepan until you can puncture the berries. Use a utensil of your choice to smash those baby berries, and when it cools, pour in the vodka of your choice. Grab a large glass jar with lid and pour the mixture in, lock it tight and store it for one to three days. Before you serve, strain the solids and pair with the mixture of your choice. Pro tip: Your cranberry-infused vodka is stellar with a Blood Orange Queen City Hemp CBD seltzer water, so you can stay buzzed and Zen for the holiday chaos.
Cranberries are a fabulous accompaniment to herbs and spices, so don’t skip the fresh bundles of herbs when you’re braving the grocery store this time of year — they make for fabulous simple syrups for cocktails. For a seasonally delightful Old Fashioned, heat cranberries, sugar, water and a handful of thyme and rosemary sprigs, just as listed above (and don’t forget to mash those berries). Remove from heat and let sit for about an hour. Once cooled, strain the solids and pour into a glass jar that has a pour spout (you can find those in any typical housewares section, as they’re commonly used for oils. I’ve scored some from World Market). Grab your nearest highball glass and pour up to 2 ounces of your favorite bourbon and 1 ounce of your freshly made simple syrup, add three dashes of Angostura bitters and stir. Garnish with a sword of two to three cranberries and an herb sprig. Voila!
One of my favorite, new spirits on the market is the brainchild of a friend of a friend, Kartik Kamat, who created Holi Gin, a chai-spiced gin made locally at Distillery America. Holi Gin is an homage to Kamat’s Indian heritage and his mother’s own chai tea recipe. Chai spice just so happens to be a wonderful flavor to play with for the holidays, so why not make a unique batch cocktail to delight your friends and family this season? To create a delectable, spiced-gin holiday punch, grab a large punch bowl and use a bottle of Holi Gin, brewed chai tea, equal parts orange and cranberry juice and a bottle of Butchertown Soda’s Ginger Beer. Slice oranges and lemons into wheels, and spike them with cloves and then combine with a small bag of frozen cranberries. Marry all these ingredients in your punch bowl, stir and pour over ice. Make sure each serving gets a few pieces of citrus and cranberry, for both aesthetics and flavor, and you’ll see that batch of spicy holiday goodness disappear before dessert.
When it comes to cranberries, the options are limitless and, after getting playful with these little bundles of mouth joy, I’m going to have to agree with that chef on NPR — cranberries are seriously underrated. From libations to one-skillet dishes that go from sweet to savory, to creating holiday-themed table décor with burgundy berry babies, I encourage you to get creative and embrace the epicenter of all side dishes this holiday season. Cheers!