Cocktail Planning for Thanksgiving

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


Apple Fennel Punch is one of many options for Turkey Day. [Photograph: Melody Fury]

Everyone knows Thanksgiving as a day to eat and eat and eat, and then even when you think you can't, to go ahead and eat some more. Me? I love to eat, but I spend at least as much time planning my drinking as I do my eating.

So in today's column, I'll talk about planning cocktails for a bash; I'll suggest some low-alcohol and non-boozy drinks; I'll recommend some festive holiday syrups that will liven up your Thanksgiving cocktails; and I'll talk about after-dinner drinks to help you recover and relax after a long day of celebration.

Cocktail Hour


Go with a classic Martini. [Photo: Jennifer Hess]

Thanksgiving might be two weeks away, but I'm sure you're already seeing Martha Stewart all over your television, talking about dishes you can make in advance and store in your fridge to reheat on Thanksgiving Day. Cooking ahead is a time-tested strategy for St. Turkey's Day, and there's no reason you shouldn't do it with your drinks, too.

If you're only having three or four other people over for dinner, mixing drinks to order is hospitable and fun, but if you're having a crowd, it can be a total pain. You'll probably find yourself constantly at the kitchen counter or wet bar, shaking and stirring.

Instead, my advice is to batch up some drinks ahead of time! In an earlier article I shared some tips on how to do it. Consider, too, the batched-in-advance Applejack Cobbler recipe from Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders, a perfectly autumnal drink featuring applejack and cranberries, along with a little bittersweet Punt e Mes. Or for something a little more elaborate, try this Apple Fennel Punch. Martha would approve.

If you want Thanksgiving to start off with a 'happy hour', greet your guests with a flute of bubbly when they arrive, and then move on to an hour or so of mixed drinks with nibbles. You can offer, say, martinis and Manhattans with a round of salty hors d'oeuvres, such as deviled eggs, mixed nuts, spinach dip, or cheddary crackers. Want something more autumnal than a martini? Here are a few other recommendations.

If you're hosting a smaller group of boozehounds, I can think of nothing better, pre-dinner, than a classic, simple Old Fashioned. Because I'm just a pun-loving cheapskate, I usually choose Wild Turkey 101, although when I can afford it, I splurge on one of the Russell's Reserve releases.

Nice and Easy, Nice and Slow

The Modern's Kina Cocktail

Watch your intake, even if the cocktails are lower-alcohol. [Photo: Alice Gao]

Maybe you're stretching the party out over a few hours, and watching a little football after brunch. You'll probably want a break between beer-soaked gridiron gazing and dinnertime's wine. Go for something low-alcohol or even nonalcoholic. Here are three booze-free (but still festive) punch recipes to consider as well. (These are a good way to get the kids involved in enjoying sophisticated but youth-legal drinking.)

Just be careful, even with the low-alcohol stuff. I've been part of holiday parties that entailed all-day binges, and they don't always end happily. These days, if I have, say, a Bloody Mary at Thanksgiving or Christmas brunch, I then stop drinking altogether until late afternoon.

Autumnal Herbal Syrups


Apple Sage Old Fashioned. [Photo: Michael Dietsch]

One way to fancy up your Thanksgiving drinks without adding last-minute fussing is to mix up a flavored simple syrup ahead of time. For Thanksgiving one year, I mixologized an Apple Sage Old Fashioned, with sage-infused simple syrup and apple brandy. You could take the same idea in a slightly different direction and make a Sidecar variation with apple brandy and cranberry syrup, too. Rosemary and lemon balm are also nice in autumn cocktails. Either would work very well with gin, for example. Try a cinnamon-apple syrup with whiskey or brandy drinks. Or take a rich sugar such a turbinado or demerara and doctor up a syrup using autumn spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

After Dinner Sips: Boozy and Digestivi


[Photo: Laird's]

I'll let others here at Drinks tackle the important topic of what wines, beers, and ciders to drink with your holiday meal, and I'll skip ahead to what to drink afterward.

The first thing to say is, bitter digestivi are your friends. Last year, after I polished off three pounds of turkey, two pounds of dressing, a pound of mashed potatoes, and a few kilograms of brussels sprouts, I was feeling pretty bloated. I don't normally like drinking Fernet Branca on its own, but I have to say, Thanksgiving is a wonderful exception. It cut through the bloat like a pie knife through pumpkin filling, and it left me more than ready for an after-dinner sipper, such as ...

Brandy! Scotch works, too. After you've helped out with the dishes and snacked on some pie, nothing's better than settling in for the night with some soft music and a nice slow sipper. A mellow Calvados is a great choice, or a rich Armagnac, or a smooth Cognac.

I also like whiskeys after dinner on Thanksgiving, although I find I have to be careful when choosing my post-prandial Turkey Day dram. Although I love big, peaty Scotch, I find that my palate is normally so buzzed by Thanksgiving night that the smoky Islays are overwhelming. I prefer something more balanced and smooth, like a Macallan.

A good bourbon is an excellent choice, too, especially if you're all caught up in the New World origins of Thanksgiving—Pilgrims and Myles Standish and all that "Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" stuff. Splurge if you can. I know many people who uncork their George T. Stagg for the first time on Thanksgiving night.

Heading Out for the Holiday?

I know, I know, not everyone stays in for Thanksgiving. If you're heading out to the home of a friend or relative, take along a bottle of something nice. You can probably assume that between the hosts and the other guests, they'll have wine and whiskey accounted for, so go another direction. If you love vermouth as much as we do here at Drinks, you can't go wrong with a bottle of Carpano Antica or Punt e Mes. (Or share a less-common bottle like this stuff.) American apple brandy or Calvados is a good choice, too. If your hosts are especially brave, pack along an amaro. Luxardo's Fernet is nice—bittersweet and herbal without packing Fernet Branca's haymaker.

Got a Plan?

So tell me, what are you drinking for Thanksgiving?