Tips for Thanksgiving Cocktail Planning

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Have you thought about Thanksgiving drinks yet? [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When I was a child, my favorite holiday was always Christmas. I think it was the gifts, the family gathering, the gifts, the food, the gifts, the songs, the gifts, the laughter, and the gifts. But now that I'm older and somewhat less greedy, I've changed affiliations. Sorry, Santa, I've thrown you over for Tom Turkey.

Thanksgiving is all about the food and drink—especially the stuff you only eat once or twice a year—and as much as I love free swag, I love food and drink even more. I love the rich, savory flavors of turkey and pumpkin, cranberry and cornbread, whipped potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts. And I like them even more with rich drinks, the kind that make you feel warm even when they're served cold. Whisky and brandy laced with maple, nut infusions, pomegranate sparklers—these are the drinks I want to savor in late November.

Of course, those drinks won't appear unless you do a little advanced planning. Need some advice? Whether you're hosting a huge party for Thanksgiving, having a few friends over in the days leading up to Turkeython, or just looking for some good drink ideas for a quiet November evening, I've got you covered.

The Well-Prepared Early Bird Gets the Nut-Flavored Bourbon

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Since we've still got a little time before Turkey Day, you can add a personal touch to your Thanksgiving drinks by crafting your own nut-infused bourbon—I promise, it's so easy that you don't need a recipe. Just get a bottle of good bourbon, say, Buffalo Trace or any of our affordable bourbon picks. In a large sealable jar, add a cup of roughly chopped toasted walnuts and two cups of bourbon. Cover and leave it to steep on the countertop for up to a week. Taste as you go; you might be happy with the flavor after a couple of days or you might want to let it go longer. Strain through a sieve lined with a coffee filter to get even the tiniest particles out.

At this point, you might see little slicks of fat from the nuts floating on the top of your bourbon. This won't affect the flavor, but if it bothers you, you can easily get rid of it. Chill the bourbon in a jar overnight in your freezer. The fat from the nuts will rise to the surface and harden so that you can remove it, and then strain the hooch again through a coffee filter.

Now you have walnut-infused bourbon, and you can use it in just about any bourbon cocktail you might have in mind, or sip it on the rocks. It's especially good in an Old Fashioned; the nuts really bring out the oaky notes in good bourbon—plus they enhance the flavors of the bitters you've added.

Toast Your Arriving Guests

[Photo: Autumn Giles]

Many parties start off with Champagne toasts, and there's no reason you can't serve up a sparkling wine cocktail as your Thanksgiving guests show up. But for an autumnal twist, try the Tangy Cider Fizz, or consider the simple Pomegranate and Ginger Sparkler. Couldn't be easier: an ounce of pomegranate juice and an ounce of ginger liqueur are topped off with three ounces of fizzy wine. For guests who are drinking light (or not at all), swap in club soda for the fizzy, or offer up the Pomegranate Americano. (True teetotalers probably will want to leave out the bitters.)

Need other pomegranate cocktail ideas? We've got you covered! Want to prep your drinks in advance? Check out these fizzy cocktails, all based on a flavorful DIY mixer.

Shrub Your Toddy!

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[Photo: Michael Dietsch]

As the term 'polar vortex' returns to our daily vocabulary, you may be thinking that a hot drink is the right thing you hand your guests as they walk through the door. Hot toddies are easy—just stud a lemon wedge with three or four cloves, put that into a mug, add two ounces of your favorite bourbon, and top it all off with boiling water and a little honey if desired.

This year, though, I'll be serving a shrubby toddy featuring a delicious pumpkin shrub. Never heard of shrub? It's a syrup made with fruits (or vegetables), vinegar, and sugar. If the vinegar throws you, rest assured that a shrub tastes no weirder than a tart lemonade. My pumpkin shrub has hints of cinnamon and ginger to give it a subtle Thanksgiving feel without slamming you over the head with Pumpkin Spice.

Shrubs are normally served cold, in cocktails or simply topped with soda, but I find they also work well hot; sipping a shrub toddy is calming and relaxing, even without booze!

Want to add booze? I won't stop you. Take one ounce pumpkin shrub and two ounces dark rum, and add them to a coffee mug. Top with hot water and grate nutmeg over the top. For non-drinkers, you can leave out the rum and still have a warming, festive drink.

Hors d'Oeuvres Pairings

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

My wife and I often plan our at-home Thanksgiving as a day of light snacks and drinks, culminating in the turkey dinner, and so we kind of nosh all day as we prep dinner. It's fun to invite some guests over to help you snack and prep, turning the day into a Thanksgivingish cocktail party.

Here's a sample menu:

  • Start by setting out a relish tray with olives and raw vegetables with the dip of your choice. Pair this with a light and bright nonalcoholic sparkler made with cranberry juice and sparkling apple cider. I like the truly tart 100% cranberry juice that isn't mixed with other juices, such as the option from Knudsen's.
  • To keep my guests and myself level, I alternate light drinks with boozier ones. A good second course is the tasty pairing of deviled eggs and martinis. The crisp cocktail cuts through the richness of the eggs, and the savory eggs make herbal-toned gin martinis sing. Make sure to get a fresh bottle of vermouth—that one you've had open for a year isn't going to cut it.

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[Photo: Autumn Giles]

  • Follow up the martini course with a sangria; offer this sparkling-cider version for teetotalers. Pair either of these with toasted baguette slices spread with cranberry chutney and goat cheese. The tangy goat cheese evokes berry-topped cheesecake when paired with the wine-based drinks, and the cranberry gives it a nice Thanksgiving feel.

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

  • Now's the time to amp things up again. Put out a tray of spiced nuts and roasted pumpkin seeds. Serve 'em with an Old Fashioned. If you have the same cheesy sense of humor that I do, you'll make it with Wild Turkey 101. (Get it?) The nuts bring out the vanilla-laced oak flavors of good bourbon. (Of course, you could also use the nut-infused bourbon I described earlier for added punch.)
  • If you started early and want another snack course leading up to your meal, fill little shot glasses with soup or chowder. Serve with a glass of dry sherry or white wine. Both options will pick up the savory flavors of the soup, and add refreshing brightness that will get your appetite in gear.

Leftovers Party

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[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

Whether or not you host Thanksgiving, creating a party from the leftovers can be even more fun than the big day. (And it gives you a chance to see friends who were booked for the holiday itself.) My wife and I like to take our leftover turkey stuff: the carcass, any remaining meat, and whatever gravy we have left to make turkey gumbo. We get that going on the stove early in the morning and have it ready by about noon. Friends can come and go as they please and dip into the gumbo whenever they arrive.

It's a meal that's meant for cocktails. Here's a good time to try to forget the cold weather and break out the New Orleans classics: Sazerac, Vieux Carré, a French 75 made with cognac instead of gin, and maybe a Ramos Gin Fizz (you can shake it in your blender), if your guests arrive early enough for a brunch drink pre-gumbo.