What to serve to people who ‘don’t like cocktails’

Let the annual hand-wringing begin, when we once again fret over what drinks to serve at Thanksgiving.

You’d think that after setting so many wine and spirits writers on the case for so many decades, we’d have finally solved this conundrum. Apparently, the search for the perfect Thanksgiving libation is more elusive than the cure for baldness.

Not that we don’t already have several well-worn paths to follow. There’s the traditional advice: Sparkling wine! Syrah! Gewurztraminer! There’s hipster advice: Sherry pairs with everything! We could go completely contrarian: Forget wine; drink artisanal cider! Or we could move straight to the esoteric: Sake, anyone?

Apparently none of those paths are particularly satisfying, because every year there’s still the collective bafflement over What. To. Do?

Perhaps we’re overthinking this, or we ought to realize there is no perfect pairing for any meal, let alone Thanksgiving, with its cornucopia of competing flavors and the varying levels of competence among the various family members doing the cooking. In my own family, everyone purports to be a drinks expert — and no one ever agrees with anyone else — and so there’s always a hodgepodge of beer, wine and spirits in the house.

With that in mind, allow me to throw in my own advice. If you’re hosting, focus on the opening salvo, the first drink of the evening. Make it something flexible and simple, but also something with a little flair. Which is why this year I am serving wine cocktails.

For me, mixing a special cocktail for guests upon their arrival is the epitome of good hosting. Wine cocktails are simple for those who don’t make cocktails very often. They don’t call for a lot of expensive ingredients, and, if someone really doesn’t like the cocktail, you can just pour them the wine straight up.

When I think of wine cocktails, my first thoughts almost always drift toward Italy and Spain, and to prosecco and sherry.

There is no better way to kick off Thanksgiving afternoon than with one of the dual Italian standards, the Aperol Spritz or a Negroni Sbagliato. Both call for a bottle of good-value prosecco, which is itself a fine enough pairing for the Thanksgiving meal. But that comes later. Start the evening by serving everyone one of these aperitivi.

Negroni Sbagliato is a variation of a cocktail I’ve written about many times before. It’s a Negroni that calls for two ounces of sparkling wine instead of gin (along with one ounce each of Campari and sweet vermouth). Sbagliato means “wrong” or “mistaken,” as in, “I mistakenly put sparkling wine in this Negroni instead of gin.” This mistake, however, is a beautiful one. It’s the sort of thing Italians drink with cheese and meat and vegetables during happy hour. The drink pairs with just about everything.

If the crowd is less adventurous or into something lighter, the next-best choice is the Aperol Spritz — with prosecco and bittersweet, bright orange Aperol with a splash of club soda — probably the most popular drink in Italy. That is what I serve to people who say “I don’t like cocktails,” and I have converted more nonbelievers to the pleasures of cocktails with that drink than just about any other.

Of course, the Aperol Spritz and the Negroni Sbagliato are far from the only wine cocktails around. If you’re more ambitious and want to expand the bar, you can always add a fino, manzanilla or amontillado sherry. Sherry, as the hip sommeliers tell us, pairs wonderfully with a wide variety of foods, and it’s true: There’s a reason people in Spain drink fino and manzanilla with plates of tapas.

But sherry also works great in cocktails. The Duke of Marlborough — equal parts sherry and sweet vermouth with a dash of orange bitters — is a classic preamble to the holiday feast. For more-advanced home bartenders, I also recommend the Dunaway, which adds maraschino liqueur and Cynar to the sherry.

None of it, of course, is likely to solve the Thanksgiving pairing conundrum. So the discussion will continue for at least one more year.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). He can be reached at jasonwilson.com. Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.

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