So it’s the week after Christmas, and you’re probably staring at the detritus of random festivities — bits of gift wrap, a tree that needs to be taken down and leftovers from meals seemingly stretching back to Thanksgiving.
For me, it’s a can of cranberry sauce, jellied and ready to plop out of the can.
It’s the kind of foodstuff that could feasibly live in the back of my pantry cabinet, lost beyond the event horizon of fancy vinegar and chili crisp, only to emerge again next November to be served next to turkey and stuffing.
But I think the humble cranberry needs a little bit of a public-relations boost — more than a quarter of Americans claim to hate the stuff, which is strange given cranberry’s lasting power as the juice mixer of choice in all kinds of cocktails, be it in a classic Cosmopolitan, Tequila Sunrise or a Solo Cup of cheap vodka.
Cranberries are a fruit native to North America, and indigenous communities around the continent consumed the bitter, tart berry for its perceived medicinal value as well as its flavor. Colonists picked up on the habit, and by the early 1800s, cranberries had grown into a key part of the American farming economy. Over the 19th century, it was cultivated in Cape Cod and Maine, and cranberry farms soon spread across the north, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It was only a series of devastations to the industry (unmanageable frost and the onset of World War I, for example), plus the rise of factory canning and food preservation, that led to a major decline in the number of fresh cranberry harvests.
Perhaps, then, the best way to reclaim the cranberry’s former glory isn’t to relegate it as a relish for roast meat once a year. Instead, I think it’s the perfect canvas for a whole spectrum of cocktails, and if you have a can of Ocean Spray jelly lying around — or even a jar of leftover homemade sauce — you already have the foundation for some delicious beverages that will serve as holiday highlights.
Three in particular that I love…
A super-easy blended version of the 1990s icon, with added complexity from cranberry. Serves two.
- ⅓ cup cranberry sauce
- 4 ounces of vodka
- 1½ ounces of Cointreau or other dry orange liqueur
- 1 ounce of fresh lime juice
- Two handfuls of ice
- Pinch of salt
Cranberry Mezcal Smash
Mezcal, as well as its milder cousin tequila, pairs beautifully with the acidity and sweetness of cranberry.
- 1 heaping tablespoon of cranberry sauce
- 2 ounces of mezcal (or tequila)
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- Two dashes of Angostura bitters (optional)
- Pinch of salt
- Handful of ice
Add the cranberry sauce and liquor to your favorite cocktail shaker, then “dry shake” (sans ice) for 10 seconds. Add all the other ingredients and shake for 15 more seconds. For best results, double-strain the drink using a small sieve into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel or a sprig of mint, if you have it.
Red Horse’s Neck
A take on the classic 19th-century cocktail with ginger beer and brandy, the latter of which can be replaced with whiskey. This also works great as a non-alcoholic drink if you remove the spirit.
- 1 tablespoon of cranberry sauce
- 2 ounces of brandy (or bourbon whiskey)
- 1 ounce of lemon juice
- Ginger beer
- Handful of ice
In a cocktail shaker, add the cranberry sauce, brandy and lemon juice, plus one or two large ice cubes, and shake hard until the sauce has smoothed out. Strain that mixture into a tall glass, add a handful of ice, then top with ginger beer. Garnish with a long lemon twist, as is tradition.