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Festive Recipes: 5 Irresistible Cranberry Cocktails

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Festive Recipes: 5 Irresistible Cranberry Cocktails

December 4, 2017

Winter cocktails are warm, earthy, amber, ruby-red—a far cry from summer’s austere, lime-infused gin, floral cordials, and mint-singing mojitos. At least, in my house. I could no more sip a G & T in a northern climate in December than I could go bobsledding in my negligée. Wait. I don’t have a negligée (must tell Santa…).

As light clothes are packed away and the sweaters and coats are brought out, so an imbiber’s appetite turns to flavors that speak of the changed and festive season.

Here are some of the cocktails and their parts that I am developing for holiday mixology, when the North American native cranberry is king. Prepare ahead, to have cranberry cocktails ready for winter parties to come.

Photographs and cocktails by Marie Viljoen.

Make Ahead: Cranberry Syrups

Because cranberries are abundant and beautiful, and I love working with them, I make three syrups. The one above is sweet, slow, and cold, using no heat. It starts off simply: mixing equal weights of crushed fruit with sugar.
Above: Because cranberries are abundant and beautiful, and I love working with them, I make three syrups. The one above is sweet, slow, and cold, using no heat. It starts off simply: mixing equal weights of crushed fruit with sugar.

A Japanese friend taught me this simple technique, for unripe ume (Prunus mume), and now I use the method for many fruits. It takes time, but you will have enough syrup for a couple of cocktails after about three days (those unripe ume, on the other hand, sit for months!). Why bother? The flavor is very refined and becomes complex with time, as it begins to ferment.

You can use any amount of fruit as long as the sugar is the same weight. Cranberries are fairly dry fruit, so expect a modest but concentrated yield.

Cold Extraction Cranberry Syrup

Yield: 1/3 cup syrup

Start one week before you need to mix some drinks:

6 ounces cranberries, crushed
6 ounces sugar

Place the crushed (or chopped) fruit in a clean jar. Add the sugar. Close the jar and shake well. Leave at a cool room temperature until the syrup is extracted. This will begin after a few days.

Strain off the syrup as you need it, leaving the rest with the fruit in the jar. The syrup with fruit remains good for many months.

There is also this delicious bonus: After a week the cranberries themselves—close to candied—become an interestingly powerful confection, or garnish. They can be eaten straight up, and can also be dried, for baking.
Above: There is also this delicious bonus: After a week the cranberries themselves—close to candied—become an interestingly powerful confection, or garnish. They can be eaten straight up, and can also be dried, for baking.

These are your own, homemade craisins. Simply strain them from the juices and spread them out on very lightly oiled parchment (to prevent them from sticking). In a dry climate they will dry in about a week; otherwise, use a dehydrator. You can also use the lowest setting on your oven: keep it on for 30 minutes, turn it off for an hour. On for 30 minutes, off for an hour. Repeat until they are craisin-ish.

Strained, sweet syrup can be added to cocktails and sparkling water, to fruit salads and vinaigrettes, or to savory braises and pan juices.
Above: Strained, sweet syrup can be added to cocktails and sparkling water, to fruit salads and vinaigrettes, or to savory braises and pan juices.

Hot Cranberry Syrup

A fast, hot syrup is just cranberries, water, and sugar over heat. To 12 ounces of cranberries add 2 cups of water and 2 cups of sugar. Stir well, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 30 minutes. Double strain, and bottle. Keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.

Cranberry sour by Marie Viljoen

Above: Sour syrup is wonderful. Like lime juice meets vermilion, with that interesting cranberry tannic note. It is very good in mixed drinks and somehow turns a mocktail into the real thing without a hint of alcohol.

Cranberry Sour Syrup

Use 12 ounces of cranberries to 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Simmer for 30 minutes, then double strain and bottle. It keeps for up to one week (honestly, I have not tried longer) in the refrigerator. Use it in any way you would deploy lemon or lime juice.

There is no end to the uses for the fruit remaining after the syrup has been strained.
Above: There is no end to the uses for the fruit remaining after the syrup has been strained.

Cranberry Rum

If I do not dry the candied cranberries, I chop them up and pour a clear alcohol over them. This can be an aquavit, a decent vodka or gin, and I also like to use white rum. Simply strain off all the syrup from the fruit, and cover the same fruit, in the same jar, with the alcohol. Leave for a couple of days, and strain off. Squeeze through cheesecloth to extract as much as possible. Bottled, this rosy hooch keeps indefinitely. It also makes a great gift (and see Winter Cabin below, for a cocktail using the cranberry rum). The leftover chopped cranberries are also useful— I stuff them into the hollowed cores of apples and roast them in a slow oven for a winter dessert.

Tough skinned cranberries take well to salting after being crushed a little. Why salt cranberries? The ruby-hued brine extruded from the fruit makes an excellent cocktail rim juice, before dipping in salt. In small amounts the brine also adds a sharp zap to mixed drinks, helps quick-pickled vegetables along, cures salmon for gravlax, and is pretty good in salad dressings, too (especially with citrus and mint).
Above: Tough skinned cranberries take well to salting after being crushed a little. Why salt cranberries? The ruby-hued brine extruded from the fruit makes an excellent cocktail rim juice, before dipping in salt. In small amounts the brine also adds a sharp zap to mixed drinks, helps quick-pickled vegetables along, cures salmon for gravlax, and is pretty good in salad dressings, too (especially with citrus and mint).

Cranberry Brine

To make the brine, place a cupful of lightly crushed cranberries in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and massage it into the fruit. Allow to sit for 24 hours, covered. Voilá: crimson brine. Strain it off and dip cocktail glass rims into it. The leftover cranberries are good pickle-snacks.

Spicebush-Cranberry Fizz by Marie Viljoen

Above: This aromatically tart and sweet ferment has a strong spicebush presence (spicebush—also known as Appalachian allspice—is the fruit of Northeast native Lindera benzoin). It blends beautifully with applejack, bourbon, whisky, dark rum, or Tequila reposado or añejo. And sparkling wine (just a dash before topping with bubbly). It has a great affinity for apple ciders and syrups, citrus, ginger, and Earl Gray tea. Think hot toddies and low-alcohol mocktails, too. Use it to deglaze a roasted carrot pan, and add it to tropical fruit salads.

Compared with the flowers and fruits I often use, cranberries ferment rather slowly—perhaps because they have been so well rinsed with water during harvest? Not sure. So I add some unpeeled apple slices to my mixture to help the yeasts along.

Spicebush-Cranberry Fizz

  • 12 ounces cranberries, lightly crushed
  • ½ an apple, cut up (not peeled or cored)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup freshly ground spicebush berries
  • 5 cups water

Place the fruit in a clean jar. Add the spicebush and sugar, and top with water. Stir well. Cover the jar loosely or with cheesecloth and stir daily. Small bubbles rising are a sign of fermentation. (Remember that if you close the jar tightly, any gas forming from fermentation needs to escape. Open that jar once or twice a day, or you might have bomb on your hands. Better to leave it open or cover with a cloth.) After the bubbles have been active for from five to seven days I strain the fruit from the liquid twice: through a double mesh strain and a double folded, damp cheesecloth. The spicebush can clog up the straining, so use fresh or rinsed cheesecloth if the liquid stops passing through. Bottle the strained, amber liquid and keep in the refrigerator until needed.

If you have not foraged your own, buy dried spicebush (sold as Appalachian Allspice) for $3 per ounce or $27 per pound at Integration Acres.

Cranberry Cocktails, 5 Ways

Red Rita cranberry cocktail by Marie Viljoen

‘Red Rita’

Makes 1 drink

The combination of brilliant cranberry syrup and earthier blood orange make a ruby cocktail nipped by a dash of cranberry brine meeting Tequila.

For the rim:

  • 1 tablespoon cranberry brine
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Pour the brine into a saucer.  Place the salt in a second saucer. Dip the rim of your cocktail coupe in the brine and then gently into the salt, working it around the edges. Allow to stand for a few minutes before pouring the drink.

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ½ ounces Tequila Reposado
  • 1 ounce Lillet Blanc
  • ½ ounce lime juice
  • ½ ounce blood orange juice
  • ½ ounce Cranberry Sour Syrup (see above)
  • ¼ teaspoon Cranberry Brine

In a cocktail shaker combine all the ingredients with ice. Shake, and pour (stay just shy of the salt rim).

Winter Cabin cranberry cocktail by Marie Viljoen

‘Winter Cabin’

Makes 1 drink

This vivid pink drink spells brunch under a crystal sky, with sun shining on snow and a crackling fire inside. The lime zest rim is essential.

For the rim:

  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon lime zest

Place the juice and salt in two separate saucers. Mix the zest into the salt. Dip the rim of the cocktail glass into the lime juice and then gently into the zested salt. Allow to sit for a few minutes before pouring the cocktail.

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ounces white rum
  • 1 ounce Cranberry Syrup
  • 1 ounce Chartreuse
  • 1 ounce lime juice

Shake all the ingredients with ice. Strain, and pour.

Dear George spicebush cocktail by Marie Viljoen

‘Dear George’

Applejack is an American brandy distilled from cider, and aged in old bourbon barrels. George Washington liked it, and probably made it.

Makes 1 drink:

  • 2 ½ ounces applejack
  • 2 ounces Spicebush Cranberry Fizz
  • 5 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, and pour.

Now Squirrel nocino cocktail by Marie Viljoen

‘Now, Squirrel’

Black as Guinness, rich with nocino (unripe black walnut liqueur), this waywardly somber drink would make a Christmas squirrel rowdy. This bottle of intense nocino was made and given to me by Kiyoko Uemura, a regular attendee of my foraging walks in New York. But this delicious liqueur is increasingly available in stores, and is now also made in the US.

Makes 1 drink:

  • 3 ounces applejack
  • 1 ounce nocino
  • 1 ounce Spicebush Cranberry Fizz

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, strain, and pour.

Long Nights spicebush cocktail by Marie Viljoen

‘Long Nights’

An earthy drink straight from fall into winter’s dark afternoons. The secret weapon in my cold weather cocktail kit is pomegranate molasses, which provides a base note without being cloying.

Makes 1 drink:

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce dry sherry
  • 1 ounce Spicebush Cranberry Fizz
  • 1 ounce pomegranate molasses

Combine all the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, strain, and pour.

Now go out and find some good cranberries.

And…come back next week for the “apple edition” of these holiday cocktails.

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Product summary  

Watershed Distillery

Nocino Liqueur

$29.99 USD from Watershed Distillery

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