For years, my brother and I played the same secret game at Thanksgiving. Our parents share a home with our grandmother, whose name is Jolly and who is as cool as she sounds. Grandma has more friends than any of us, and every holiday she invites them all—the mahjong ladies, the book club, the widows, the widowers, the couples whose families live far away.
Our Thanksgiving table is Martha Stewart meets retirement home: stalks of Brussels sprouts and tiny gourds as centerpieces, framed by reading glasses and pillboxes. As teenagers, my brother and I hid in our rooms and rolled our eyes. Eventually, we decided to join the fun. We scribbled some rules, rummaged through the liquor cabinet, and shook hands. Drink any time Grandma or one of her friends mentions a medication, illness, or death; asks someone to repeat something; or requests advice or technological assistance. It was mean and wildly effective, and we were wasted by the end of appetizers.
Then again, isn't this what Thanksgiving is actually about? Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and all the alcohol? Cocktails take the least amount of time, require the smallest effort, and make everyone the happiest. Here are three fuss-free recipes to break the ice, if you will, and treat guests to more than just wine or beer. If you'd like to serve them as part of a drinking game, all the better.
The traditional Tom Collins includes gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup, capped with club soda. It is crisp in an Outer-Banks-in-October sort of way, like a gin drink should be. It also nails my cocktail pet peeve: all sweetness and acidity, no savory oomph. So I added some. Gin is all about the botanicals: juniper, by definition, plus a slew of others, from coriander and cassia to lemon and lavender. Here I sought help from rosemary, which you probably have in your fridge for the turkey. While rosemary often gets pegged as savory, it works wonders in sweet settings. In this revamp on the Collins, it infuses a floral, woodsy simple syrup that makes the cocktail a little less Mike's Hard Lemonade and a lot more lovely.
2 parts gin, preferably London dry style
1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 part rosemary simple syrup
(see recipe below)
Rosemary, for garnish
Combine the gin, lemon juice, and rosemary syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add a few cubes of ice. Shake dramatically in front of your guests, until the shaker is frosty. Strain into glasses and top with club soda. Garnish with more rosemary.
Rosemary Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 sprigs rosemary
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Cook just until the sugar dissolves—you don't want it to boil. Remove from heat and let steep in the fridge until very cold and flavorful, at least one hour or up to twelve hours.
See the bellini as the Italian answer to the mimosa. Instead of pricey champagne, it features the humbler prosecco. And it's made sunny and sweet by peach puree instead of orange juice. While mimosas have been decidedly brunch-zoned, bellinis are just as good in the morning as they are at night. As soon as your guests arrive, pop some bottles and serve this cranberry rendition with cheese and crackers.
12 ounces cranberries
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons sugar
1 cup water
Zest of 1 orange
Combine the cranberries, honey, sugar, water, and orange zest in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the cranberries start to break down. Press the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and trash the dregs. Chill the cranberry sauce for at least a few hours, until very cold, or for up to one week. To assemble a drink, add a few spoonfuls of cranberry sauce to a champagne flute or coupe. Top with prosecco. Stir gently.
Bourbon Mulled Cider
In 2012, I lived in Scotland for several cloudy months leading up to Christmastime. As the weather got colder, the supermarkets got more and more festive, from cookie tins to jars of goose fat to mulled wine sachets. The last was essentially a tea bag filled with various spices—cinnamon shards, citrus peel, cardamom pods, black peppercorns, allspice berries, cloves. On this side of the pond there is no equivalent. Assembling your own mulling mix—by buying the whole spices individually—will cost you more than the wine. Which put me in a bit of a pickle as I brainstormed this recipe in the supermarket. And then I saw pickling spice. Common, cheap, and with many of the same ingredients as those mulled wine sachets: cinnamon, allspice, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom, ginger. The surprise guests, like mustard seeds and chilies, offer spice to counter all the sweetness.
8 cups apple cider
1 cup bourbon
1 1/2 tablespoons pickling spice
Peels from 1 orange, plus extra for garnish
4 star anise, plus extra for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for about twenty minutes, until very hot and fragrant. Serve in mugs, garnished with orange peel and star anise, if you're feeling fancy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "[Before] Thanksgiving."