Before the turkey arrives at the table, some folks serve oysters on the half shell, some serve pumpkin soup, and others offer deviled eggs. Some prefer to save their stomach space. But, appetizers or no appetizers, many of us start drinking long before the Thanksgiving meal begins, and there are many reasons to make this sangaree—a sweet-tart, caramelly, nutty, not-too-boozy cocktail—your signature Thanksgiving drink.
The recipe doesn't date to the 1600s, but it is an oldie, coming to us from Derek Salerno of Shagbark in Richmond, Virginia. When designing Shagbark's bar menu, Salerno was inspired by the mention of "Madeira wine made into Sangaree or Lemonade" that appeared in Thomas Jefferson on Wine. "A more iconic Virginian gourmand [than Jefferson] you are unlikely to find," says Salerno, so he began poking around old cocktail books and fiddling with formulas for this precursor to sangria as we know it.
The base of the drink may not be that familiar today, but in the colonial era, much of the wine in the US came from Madeira, a tiny island off the coast of Morocco. The spot was conveniently located for trade ships, and as their export business grew, Madeiran winemakers began to add brandy or other spirits to help their wine last through the long, hot voyage at sea. (For those curious about the history, I highly recommend checking out Serious Eater Robert F. Moss's new book, Southern Spirits.) If you've never tried Madeira—and you should!—this cocktail is an excellent place to start.
Most of its flavor comes from Malmsey, the sweetest of the range of single-grape Madeiras.* (The label won't mention it, but Malmsey is made from malvasia grapes.) The wine's fermentation is stopped while there's still quite a bit of sugar in the mix. Here, the Madeira adds a walnut-like, toffee-laced character to the drink, and a full texture that doesn't require another spirit to bulk it up. Which is for the best if you want to start your drinking nice and easy.
If you're looking for a drier version of Madeira to sip on its own, go with Sercial or Verdelho. A wine labeled as Bual or Malmsey will be much richer, ideal for pairing with cheese or dessert.
Once you've got the Madeira in hand, just add a little fresh lemon and simple syrup to balance it out, then shake everything until well chilled. A grating of fresh nutmeg echoes the toasty, oxidative aromas of the fortified wine nicely. And, since there isn't, say, rum or whiskey in the mix, you can have a couple before your family shows up for the feast, and a few more once the turkey's on the table.