Lattes get all the pumpkin spice buzz, but wouldn’t it be more fun to get those flavors — and that buzz — in a Thanksgiving cocktail?
It sure sounds like a great way to get your seasonal drinking on, but don’t grab the pumpkin puree just yet. For some in the mixology world, the first rule of pumpkin cocktails is that it’s not really about the pumpkin.
“Pumpkin doesn’t taste like anything,” points out Morgan Schick, creative director at San Francisco’s Cafe du Nord. Nutmeg, cloves, ginger and cinnamon, on the other hand — the flavors behind pumpkin pie’s warm and tasty kick — do taste like the holidays and are a good starting point when looking to give your cocktails a holiday spin.
Duncan Wedderburn, bar manager at San Francisco’s Palm House, likes to stay seasonal when creating fall libations. And unlike Schick, he doesn’t mind adding the real deal to his drinks. “I think spices, apples, cinnamon and, of course, pumpkin,” he said. “Try infusing a spirit with fall fruits or making a spiced syrup. It’s a surprisingly easy and fun process.”
For a cocktail he created called the pumpkin fizz, Wedderburn spikes simple syrup with cinnamon. For the syrup, gently simmer 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar and four or five cinnamon sticks for 10 minutes. Strain and cool, then get mixing.
To make Wedderburn’s pumpkin fizz, in a cocktail shaker combine 2 ounces of vodka, ¾ ounce lemon juice, ½ ounce cinnamon syrup, ½ ounce half-and-half, one egg white and 1 tablespoon pumpkin butter. Shake for 30 seconds, then add ice and shake for another 10 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled tumbler and top with a pinch of nutmeg and a lemon wheel.
Cranberries are another ingredient that spell instant holiday. But unlike pumpkin, the problem here is too much flavor. Uncooked and unsweetened, cranberries can mouth-puckeringly tart. To get around that, Schick makes a sweet pickle of cranberries and uses them as a cocktail garnish, threading them on a stick.
Another way to conquer cranberries is to turn them into a syrup. Michael Goldman, brand ambassador for Maison Ferrand, a French spirits company, makes cranberry syrup using 1 cup each of water, sugar and cranberries, plus 2 teaspoons of orange zest. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the cranberries are soft. Once the mixture cools, blend and strain, then add 1 ounce of Campari to the syrup. The mixture will keep, refrigerated, for a few weeks.
For a seasonal gin and tonic, Goldman uses ¼ ounce of the cranberry syrup to 2 ounces of gin mixed with a drier tonic, such as Q Tonic.
While white spirits make great holiday cocktails — vodka is a blank canvas; gin comes with juniper notes — brown spirits are Schick’s go-to liquor.
“Holiday flavors lend themselves very well to American whiskey,” he said. “You’re talking about brown sugar and sweet potatoes and pumpkins and cranberries and maple syrups, just all of those flavors. Similarly, dark rums lend themselves very well to it. November is when I switch to all brown spirits, personally. I don’t find myself wanting a Tom Collins, I want an old fashioned.”
Speaking of old fashioneds, Las Vegas bar manager Hien Truong likes to infuse bourbon with cinnamon, allspice, cardamom and nutmeg as a springboard for an apple spiced old fashioned. Truong, bar manager at Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres and Bar Centro, both located at the SLS Hotel, uses 3 to 4 cinnamon sticks for a 750-milliliter bottle of bourbon along with about 20 allspice berries, 15 cardamom pods, 3 whole nutmegs, 10 cloves and the peel of two oranges. Everything goes into a container, gets a good shake and is left to sit for about 48 hours before being strained and consumed.
Maple is another good choice for seasonal sipping, though using the real deal can be too much, says Schick. “It can so easily overwhelm everything.” He makes a simple syrup with maple sugar (not syrup) — using equal parts sugar and water as usual — which creates a slightly less intense maple boost. Use where you would a regular simple syrup, in an old fashioned for instance, maybe even with candy corn for a garnish.
Other easy touches: Add a dash of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice to a simple syrup destined for daiquiris. Or, from Goldman, try a Calvados sour, “the ultimate spoof on an appletini.” Mix 2 ounces of Calvados, 1 ounce of lemon juice and¾ ounce simple syrup. Shake and strain into a martini glass or coupe.
Looking for more flavor combinations? Wedderburn suggests checking out “The Flavor Bible,” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, “a great resource for identifying what flavors work well with each other.”
What not to do: Get too complex or ambitious. The last thing you need is extra holiday stress. If you’re entertaining a crowd, think drinks like sangrias and punches that can be made in large batches ahead of time, advises Wedderburn.
“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Keep it simple,” he said, which is good advice for any holiday endeavor.