For years, the cranberry was one of my favorite fruits, based entirely on my experiences with it this time of year, slathering its saucified form onto everything on my Thanksgiving plate, be it bird, starch, starch or other starch. Its flavors — bright, tangy, sweet — seemed the perfect complement to the rich, salty and herb-laced flavors of the season.
Imagine my shock some years ago when I first mixed up a Cosmopolitan, the most famous cocktail in which America's favorite holiday berry plays a marquee role. Relying on a recipe I'd found online, which called for cranberry juice, orange liqueur, citrus vodka and lime, I mixed up the tipple that "Sex and the City" turned into a phenomenon, took a sip — and made the sort of face Carrie Bradshaw would have made if someone had forced her to wear a scrunchie. Yuck.
"Had Carrie and friends really been slurping down this aggressively sour and bitter drink at glam NYC hotspots while chittering about the kinks and cruelties of New York men?" I wondered, gazing Carrie-Bradshawishly out the window, my face lost in winsome Carrie-Bradshawish wonder at the masochism of the drinker who would order this concoction more than once. "When it comes to the Cosmo," I wondered, "have we all just been fooling ourselves?"
For a long time afterward, I believed so, and avoided the drink, thinking it another fad I didn't get, like "Transformers" movies or high-waisted jeans. I didn't know, then, that craft cocktailers were doing the same, for different reasons — in part, that the drink's sheer ubiquity had created a backlash. (Robert Simonson's history of the cocktail renaissance, "A Proper Drink," details the drink's creation, including a very funny anecdote about how many bartenders have cussed out the drink's inventor, Toby Cecchini, for foisting it upon the world.)
I only found out later, when a friend passed me her tasty pink drink without first I.D.'ing it as a Cosmo, that a vast portion of urban American women in their 30s hadn't been victim to a sinister HBO booze brainwashing. Cosmo lovers hadn't been wrong; I'd been wrong about the very nature of the cranberry.
In prepping my first Cosmo, the recipe I used had called for "cranberry juice," not "cranberry juice cocktail," which is a different, sweetened sip. Accordingly, I bought from our hippie co-op R.W. Knudsen's Just Cranberry, a pure, unadulterated juice that should never be used in the classic Cosmo spec, because it makes cranberries taste like — the horror — cranberries.
Bite into a fresh one and try not to wince: Naked, our beloved berry is incredibly sour and bitter. What I'd loved all those years was not the cranberry, but the cosmetic enhancements of sugar, orange zest and ginger that made it palatable. The au naturel juice? I don't know what kind of health-conscious ascetics are out there drinking the stuff, but the Puritans would salute their self-punishment, as I salute their commitment to the urinary tract health the fruit is purported to convey. These folks will probably live a thousand years, peeing cleanly, commuting by bike, avoiding glutens and correcting people's grammar on the Internet.
The cranberry was already being used by Native Americans hundreds of years ago: They were mashing it into pemmican, a proto-protein-bar of fat and dried deer or bison meat that traveled well and could keep for years. (I almost hesitate to share this historical delicacy for fear some enterprising bartender will mix up a deer-fat-infused cranberry cocktail for Thanksgiving; if the Berried Bambi becomes the Cosmo of 2017, I'll go into hiding). European fur traders learned and eventually adopted pemmican as a great trail food. But when early settlers started using cranberries, it was likely in dishes similar to what they had prepared back in England: as a tart, sweet sauce for game, which is how it came to play a central role in the annual American gobbler gobbling.
That sauce can also slide into festive drinks, too, as can the cranberry juice cocktail that most cocktail recipes require. Even the unsweetened cranberry juice that scared me off Cosmos can work. Mostly you need to have a grasp of its sugar content: Check the ingredient list on the juice or sauce if you buy it, and taste it before you throw it into a spec or assume it's interchangeable with another brand. And if you're working with cranberry sauce, pay attention to its textural elements; muddled berry skins and seeds work in some drinks, but you'll want to strain them out of others.
The Cosmo, properly made with sweetened Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail, could certainly play a role in your Thanksgiving festivities, as could the super-simple Cape Cod (vodka and cranberry juice cocktail over ice, with a squeeze of lime).
But I think the holiday calls for a little more. A daiquiri may not bring pilgrims to mind, but this Thanksgiving riff is classically bright and tangy, and adds the seasonal berry and holiday spice via an easy syrup made with Oregon Chai Tea Latte, an ingredient you can find at many grocery stores. It's a worthy drink to toast with, as is the festive and family-sized Cranberry Ginger Punch. This easy-to-assemble flowing bowl is kin to the classic cocktail known as the Poinsettia, an equally holiday-appropriate quaff that uses orange liqueur. I like the ginger liqueur in this variation, but you could also thread the needle and use 3 ounces of each. The key is not overdoing it on sweet ingredients, so that the dry bubbly and cranberry flavors still lead the parade.
For those aforementioned healthy types who like their cranberries the way hard-boiled detectives take their whiskey — bracing — but need to soften it up for family members with a sweeter tooth, you can make a lovely drink out of the unsweetened juice. You'll just need to do more sweetening to balance it out. In the Crimson Crane (named for the berry's Colonial Era name, "craneberry," for the avian neck curve of its stem and flowers), that dark tartness is tamed into indulgence with crème de cacao and spicy, autumnal Angostura bitters. Use it to toast what you and yours have to be thankful for, be it good health, avoiding politics at the dinner table, Uncle Morty's sweet potato casserole, the smirk of Mr. Big in "Sex and the City" reruns, or your glowingly healthy urinary tract.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
MAKE AHEAD: The block of punch ice needs to freeze overnight.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
Water, for punch ice (see headnote)
1 large, seedless orange
1 teaspoon orange bitters
6 ounces ginger liqueur (see headnote)
10 ounces Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail (see headnote)
One chilled 750-milliliter bottle Brut-style sparkling wine
Prepare a block of ice for the punch by freezing a cereal bowl or Tupperware dish full of water.
Put the ice in a punch bowl. Cut the orange into thin wheels and distribute them around the punch bowl.
Combine the bitters, ginger liqueur and cranberry juice cocktail in a pitcher, stirring to incorporate. Pour the mixture gradually over the punch ice, then gently pour in the chilled sparkling wine. Stir gently to mix, then ladle into cocktail coupes.
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