The Perfect Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Cocktail: Fig and Cinnamon Punch

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[Photographs: Emily Dryden]

I won't pretend that what you drink on Thanksgiving is the most important part of the day. It's definitely not as important as chatting with your grandmother or making popsicle-stick turkey centerpieces with your nieces. It's not as important as bringing home a new significant other or inviting all your high school friends for late-night leftovers.

If you like football, football is probably more important.

That said, a delicious homemade cocktail sets the perfect tone for a big family gathering. Like Champagne, it says, "We're celebrating," but it continues with "...and I made this just for you." And since the host's stress level is important, do your future self a favor, opting for something that tastes complex and interesting but doesn't mean you're running around like a turkey with your head cut off just as your guests arrive.

Individually shaken drinks are off the menu. Punch is in.

This autumnal beauty is warmly spiced and spiked with rum, with an intriguing undercurrent from steeped dried figs and caramely-nutty Madeira. It's boozy enough to feel perfect in crisp weather, but its black tea backbone means it's not too sweet (after all, there's pie coming).

Adapted from the brilliant A. Minetta Gould of Ste. Ellie in Denver, this concoction can be prepped up to six days in advance. That means it's fancy-tasting stuff, without any last-minute worry.

Step One: Stocking Up and Chilling Out

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To check punch off your list, I'd recommend thinking about the plan at least two weeks before Thanksgiving. First, figure out how you're going to serve it. A pretty punch bowl instantly adds glamour, but you can also use a large glass or ceramic salad bowl, as long as it can hold about 9 cups of liquid plus a big ice block. (And as long as you have another salad bowl for tossing actual salad.) Alternately, you could use a beverage dispenser that comes with a spout—just make sure that it has a wide-enough opening at the top to add your ice.

Speaking of ice, you should make it just a few days before the feast. You can freeze a big, festive block in a Tupperware or bundt pan full of water (use filtered if you generally prefer the flavor), then dip it in warm water to release the block—just double check first that the container will fit in your serving vessel along with those 9 cups of liquid. Don't use months-old ice; it tends to absorb the unpalatable odors in your freezer.

While you're at it, get your ingredients: You'll need some black tea bags (decaffeinated if your mother's the type to be up all night if there's a drop of caffeine in anything), a few cups of dried figs, which add a delicate, nutty sweetness to the mix, and a handful of cinnamon sticks for fall-appropriate spice. The base is a bottle of aged rum—Gould recommends Plantation Barbados 5-Year—and some Bual Madeira, a rich-but-still-refreshing fortified wine that gets its toasty flavor from long, slow exposure to oxygen in wooden barrels that are stored in sub-tropical conditions. (I used Blandy's, which tastes a bit like golden raisins. The rest of the bottle is perfect for sipping after dinner, though it keeps astoundingly well even when it's open, so you can save it for the holidays, too.)

For garnishing, you'll use a few lemons, and you might end up adding a touch of maple syrup for extra sweetness.

Step Two: Gettin' Figgy With It

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The flavor base for the punch is a black tea that's steeped with dried figs and cinnamon sticks. You'll halve the figs and warm them in hot water with the cinnamon sticks, steeping the tea bags in the liquid for five minutes, then removing them to let the figs and cinnamon continue to infuse. Once strained, the result is a little sweet, thanks to the figs, and a little bitter from the tea. Pour it into a resealable container and get it chilled down in the fridge; you don't want to mix the punch together until the tea is properly cold.

Step Three: Mix, Fine Tune, and Stash

Once you've got your fancy fig tea cooled down, you can complete this punch directly in a punch bowl and serve it immediately. But the beauty of this recipe is that if you happen to have a few other important last-minute kitchen tasks, you can mix all the liquids together and stash your punch in a container or two in the back of your fridge up to five days in advance, then just stir-and-pour when your guests arrive.

So, a day (or a few days) in advance, go ahead and mix your bottle of rum with a few ounces of that rich-and-tart Madeira and that fig-infused tea in a pitcher, bowl, or resealable container that can hold 2 1/2 quarts. Stir it all together well. Then do your test: Put some ice in a glass and pour a little taste of your punch in, using a spoon or ladle. Swirl it around to give it a little dilution, and sip.

It may be perfect (though a little strong, since you haven't added ice to the batch yet). But as I mentioned when we were talking about daiquiris, you have to trust yourself and adjust depending on the ingredients you used. If the rum and Madeira you started with are on the drier side, you may want to add a quarter ounce of maple syrup to the batch at this point. (Or you may not.) Stir the mixture very well, and repeat the tasting process. You may still want a little more maple, but maybe not.

When adjusted to your taste, refrigerate the batch, well sealed. This might mean pouring the batch into a few large mason jars, or wrapping the top of the pitcher tightly with plastic wrap. Stash that sucker in the fridge and forget about it.

Step Four: The No-Sweat Serve

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This is the truly easy part. Wait until your guests have arrived. Stir your batched punch and put ice in your serving vessel. Pour in the punch and garnish with thinly sliced lemon wheels. Offer ice-filled glasses and extra lemon slices for garnish. Receive praise. Focus on football.