Cranberries aren’t just for sauce — they can contribute to getting sauced, too. (No, no, no; I did not say that). What I mean is there are inventive and delicious ways to incorporate cranberries into your holiday adult beverages, taking advantage of their massively tart flavor to bring some zing to your palate.
For full disclosure, you should know that I do not like sweet cocktails and the following recipes suit my personal palate. You may want to make a practice batch and play with the sugar (or liqueur) content to find combinations suited to your own sweet tooth. I can think of worse things, though, than playing around with cocktails.
Let’s start with something simple: a Cranberry Kir Royale. You probably know how to make a “regular” Kir Royale using Champagne (or sparkling wine) and crème de cassis; a Cranberry Kir Royale simply substitutes cranberry liqueur for cassis. It’s easy to ramp the cranberry volume up or down by adjusting the amount of liqueur — I usually start with about a half-inch in the bottom of a Champagne flute and then top-up with fizz.
To make a tarter version, one with an interesting texture, muddle (smash) a couple of fresh cranberries in the bottom of the glass before adding your liqueur. You can make a sweeter drink by using a fizzy Moscato in place of Champagne. The only real “rule” with Kir Royale is not to top-up the glass with your best vintage Dom Perignon. You want a decent-quality sparkler (possibilities range from Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle to Spain’s Freixinet), but not one whose complex flavors deserve to be savored solo.
My favorite cranberry-vodka cocktail requires some time at the stove, but it’s worth it in the end. Dump a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries into a saucepan and add ¾ cup raw cane sugar (a.k.a. Demerara sugar) and just enough water to cover the berries. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer while the berries start to “pop,” stirring occasionally (mostly to keep the pot from boiling over). After all the berries have popped, remove them from the stove, allow the fruit to cool completely and then puree in a blender.
Pass the pureed berries through a fine sieve, pressing lightly on the solids to force a bit (not a lot) of pulp through, and refrigerate the proceeds. At this point you can stop until you’re ready to make cocktails; the pureed berries will hold for three or four days in the fridge.
When cocktail hour rolls around, combine one part chilled vodka, three parts cranberry puree and one part Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur) in a shaker with ¼ cup crushed ice (per cocktail), shake briskly and pour into stemmed cocktail glasses. I’ve been known to make this recipe slightly more orange-y by adding a drop or two of orange oil to the cranberries while they’re cooking. If orange isn’t your thing, add lime zest (or thinly shaved peel) during cooking and substitute lime juice for Cointreau in the shaker. You can even substitute maple syrup for raw sugar, which produces a slightly richer, sweeter drink. When done right, which I can’t promise I always do, you’ll have a kind of slushy for grown-ups.
For a twist on the mint julep, you can make a “cranberry julep” by muddling a handful of cranberries, three or four mint leaves, a spoonful of powdered sugar and a squeeze of lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Add two ounces of Bourbon and some ice, and shake vigorously. Pour the shaker’s contents into a low-ball glass and top with ginger beer (available at Food Pak on Old Shell Road; not for the kiddies).
Some folks look askance at this cocktail because you basically have to slurp the liquid through a layer of floating fruit and leaves, but you can solve that problem by offering straws or straining the contents of the shaker. If you do the latter, add some ice cubes to the glass as you’re topping up with ginger beer.
Got Satsumas? Then you’ve got another cranberry cocktail idea. Pour one cup (8 oz.) of freshly squeezed Satsuma juice, half a cup (4 oz.) of vodka, ¼ cup (2 oz.) of cranberry-infused sugar syrup and a light squeeze of lemon juice into a cocktail shaker, shake thoroughly with ice and strain into stemmed cocktail glasses. This recipe is easy to adjust for sweetness — just increase or decrease the amount of cranberry syrup. You make cranberry syrup, by the way, by combining equal parts fresh cranberries, cane sugar and water in a pan and boiling gently until the berries have popped and gone soft, then pouring the mixture through a sieve. You don’t need to press on the cranberries to make syrup, unless you just want some added flavor and pulp.
For after dinner, I’ve concocted a hot toddy made with gin and cranberries — which is a surprisingly tasty combination because the botanical oils in gin seem to enhance the fresh, tart qualities of cranberries. This recipe also requires cranberry sugar syrup, but I like to dial down the sweetness in this recipe by boiling two parts fresh cranberries with one part cane sugar and enough water to cover, then straining the mixture through a sieve.
To make the toddy, start by placing a bunch of mint leaves into a bowl, pouring boiling water over them and leaving them to steep for five minutes or so. (What’s “a bunch”? I don’t know, honestly; mint grows wild in my yard year-round, so I just grab a handful.) After steeping, mix two parts gin, one part cranberry syrup and a squeeze of fresh orange juice in a mug, then pour in the hot “mint tea,” straining out the leaves as you pour. Too tart? Then use the sweeter cranberry-syrup recipe (from the Satsuma cocktail) and skip the juice — or substitute a bit of Cointreau. This is adult play-time, so experiment and have fun!