Thanksgiving hosts have plenty to worry about.
How to cook the turkey, or should you even serve one? What’s the best way to ask a favorite aunt not to bring the salad everyone hates? And is keeping politics out of the conversation even possible?
Here’s my advice: Relax, and mix everyone a drink.
Cocktails are as American as the holiday itself, and the availability of local spirits, food-friendly recipes and easy techniques make them well worth adding to the menu.
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“The point of Thanksgiving and Christmas is they get family to the table,” said Nicole Dearing, bar manager at Webster House. “The emphasis is always on the food, but cocktails can be another opportunity to excite your guests.”
Dearing prefers using spirits made in Kansas City, and there’s plenty to choose from now that more than a dozen brands are produced within striking distance of the city. For her Duffy’s Julius, Dearing infuses Duffy’s Run Vodka from Restless Spirits Distilling Co. with nutmeg, and then combines it with orange juice, unsweetened whole milk yogurt, simple syrup, orange bitters and Champagne.
Both Lifted Spirits (where Dearing is a brand ambassador) and Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery make an appearance in her Midwest 75, a citrusy whiskey riff on the French 75.
Dearing’s Tea Thyme, which is featured on Webster House’s menu, follows a punch template and uses blackberry- and thyme-infused Union Horse Distilling Co. Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey. A fresh thyme garnish ups the aroma ante.
That last touch is a nod to the season, when savory herbs, baking spices and rich, meaty flavors dominate in the kitchen. That’s where Derek Branham, lead bartender at the Rieger, finds much of his inspiration, although he’s careful to craft cocktails that complement rather than compete with food.
Rieger bartender Julie Ohno’s In The Cold, Cold Night cocktail, for example, includes the de rigueur pumpkin. But that’s tempered with rum that’s been fat-washed with brown butter and sage, a lemon-sage syrup and Ohno’s own No. 22 Coffee-Pecan bitters.
“That flavor pairing of brown butter and sage is classic, and something we smelled from the kitchen,” Branham said. “I love what she did with that one.”
Branham cautions that pairing cocktails with food can be tricky, because spiritous or acidic drinks can quickly overwhelm your palate. That’s why he likes serving glasses of sherry, Madeira or vermouth before a meal, or opting for lower-octane classics like the Bamboo Cocktail (typically equal parts dry vermouth and dry sherry, plus bitters).
Flipping the proportions of a classic like the Manhattan is another of his strategies.
“It doesn’t knock you over the head, and you’re taking care of the palate,” Branham said.
Another pro tip: go bitter.
Bitter liqueurs known as amari are increasingly popular in the U.S., and lighter aperitif versions like Campari make an ideal low-alcohol opener. Mix with club soda, and you’ve got the easiest spritz imaginable. Add sweet vermouth to make it an Americano. The Sbagliato is the same, except sparkling wine stands in for club soda.
“These come together so quickly, with no shaking or stirring needed,” Branham said.
The bitter category is broad, though, meaning many more bottles fit the role of after-dinner digestif. Branham is partial to serving J. Rieger & Co.’s CaffèAmaro with a shot of espresso or mixed with tonic water, while Dominic Petrucci, beverage manager at The Savoy at 21c, favors sipping Fernet, Averna or Cynar on the rocks or neat.
“The bitter things contrast all the rich sweetness,” Petrucci said.
Such drinks are simplicity itself, but more complex cocktails don’t have to complicate hosting. The key is prepping larger quantities in advance, a practice bartenders call batching.
That’s especially effective with classics like the Heritage Martini on The Savoy’s menu, Petrucci said. It can be made in either small or large quantities, so long as the final proportions are 55 percent gin and 45 percent dry vermouth, with orange bitters for brightness and half a pinch of salt. He mixes that, seals it in a bottle and stores it in the freezer.
“When it’s time to serve it, just pull out the frozen bottle and pour,” Petrucci said. “There’s no stirring, shaking or mixing, and you’ve got a banger martini.”
Still, it can be hard to make everyone happy, which is where punch comes in. It’s true that plenty of punch recipes require a fair bit of advance work, but others can be mixed right in the punch bowl — or slow cooker, for that matter.
Petrucci likens his Petticoat Punch to an oversize hot toddy, with bourbon, Oloroso sherry, lemon juice, honey, apple cider and spices all warmed together. Don’t have sherry? Use wine or vermouth. Already tired of cinnamon and cloves? Change up the spices. Have guests who don’t drink? Leave the booze out.
“Keep it easy,” Petrucci said. “You really can’t mess this up. Someone’s going to drink it.”
That’s a great attitude to carry into December, a month notorious for holiday stress. Certainly, it’s the spirit with which Andrew Olsen is approaching the Miracle at Rockhill, the first Kansas City iteration of the Miracle Holiday Pop-Up Bar concept that’s now spread to more than 80 locations around the world.
“There will probably be a line every single day until New Year’s Eve,” said Olsen, beverage director for Miracle in Kansas City, which is co-sponsoring the event with the Rockhill Grille. “I hope as many people who can will come, and that they’ll be patient. It will be worth the wait.”
The pop-up will transform the Rockhill’s second floor lounge with over-the-top holiday decorations and Christmas kitsch from Nov. 23 through Dec. 31. The basic cocktail menu is the same everywhere, with drinks like a gingerbread-bourbon old fashioned and the Jingle Balls Nog.
But Olsen and J. Rieger co-founder Ryan Maybee also created a handful of Kansas City specialties such as the Dasher & Dancer, which was inspired by a banana cream pie served at Rye while Olsen worked there and includes Kansas City Whiskey, apple brandy and ginger beer topped with banana meringue foam and dark chocolate shavings.
Not that I’ll be making anything like that for my family, but then, Olsen said, what’s in the glass isn’t really the point.
“With the holidays, it’s not just about the flavors but about the experience,” he said. “Being able to bring this family atmosphere that’s warm and inviting and has a cheerful aesthetic to it wherever you are.”
Good advice indeed.
Nicole Dearing is a champion of local ingredients. She created this citrusy whiskey French 75 riff for our photo shoot, and it features two: whiskey from Lifted Spirits and cider from Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery.
Makes 1 cocktail
2 ounce Lifted Spirits Wheat Whiskey
1 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce lemon juice
Lucky Dog Hard Cider (or other dry cider), to taste
Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine whiskey, simple syrup, lemon juice and bitters over ice in a shaker tin. Shake, and then strain into a coupe. Top with hard cider. Garnish with lemon twist.
Bitter liqueurs known as amari are a Thanksgiving secret weapon. Serving aperitif-style cocktails like this one from “Spritz” (Ten Speed Press, 2016) stimulate the appetite, are low in alcohol, easy to make and even easier to change up.
Makes 1 drink
1 to 2 ounces Campari
3 ounces white wine
Lemon half wheel, for garnish
Combine Campari and wine in a large wine glass. Top with soda water and garnish.
This holiday punch recipe from Dominic Petrucci is as flexible as it is easy to prepare. Red wine, vermouth or port can happily stand in for the sherry, and the spices can be adjusted taste. Be aware that the flavor of the spices will intensify the longer the punch is heated.
Makes about 20 servings
6 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 cup honey
1 cup water
2 cups Oloroso sherry
1 bottle bourbon, 750ml
8 1/2 cups apple cider
5 cinnamon sticks
10 whole star anise pods
6 cloves, crushed
Lemon wheels and pomegranate seeds, to garnish
Combine lemon juice, honey, water, sherry, bourbon, apple cider and spices in a slow cooker. Heat until punch is warm, ladle into cups and garnish with a lemon slice and pomegranate seeds.
Spiritous cocktails tend to overwhelm the palate and so are hard to match with food. So Derek Branham often flips the proportions on classics like the Manhattan to make them more approachable.
Makes 1 cocktail
2 ounces sweet vermouth
1 ounce rye whiskey or bourbon
2 dashes bitters
Lemon twist or cocktail cherry, for garnish
Combine ingredients over ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a prepared cocktail glass and garnish.