Brow Beat

Everything You Need to Know About Thanksgiving Cocktails

Alas, it’s too late to barrel-age a Martinez, as T Magazine suggests. But you still have options.

Photo by ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images

What was the first Thanksgiving cocktail?
A recipe for the Thanksgiving Cocktail entered culinary history on Nov. 18, 1914, but it involved no liquid more potent than oyster liquor. Fannie Farmer’s School of Cookery gave that name to an appetizer of parboiled oysters. Sounds good, but I consider oyster bisque a brighter option.

But what should I make to drink at Thanksgiving?
Facing a crowd, a savvy host contemplates punch. David Wondrich suggests U.S.S. Richmond Punch, named for a sloop, as the historically correct hooch to honor the Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863. A batch of Sangaree would also evoke ye olden buzz.

Not my scene. I want a cocktail.
Serious Eats suggests a variety of seasonally appropriate potions, many based on apple brandy.

Unserious, Cosmopolitan suggests a vodka drink garnished with gingersnap crumbs and a “salted caramel chai sangria”: “When Mom starts nagging you about your love life over Thanksgiving dinner, down one of these”!

Way too serious, Mashable suggests stunt drinks suggestive of stuntmen injured on the job; these include a green bean gimlet and a whiskey sour incorporating turkey bouillon.

Meanwhile, our friends at T Magazine went to Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey, and came away with two Thanksgiving cocktails woodsier than a $400 plaid flannel. Alas, it’s already too late, this year, to get started on a Barrel-Aged Martinez—it needs a week to age, of course, and obtaining a whiskey barrel is kind of a drag, sometimes. But the only special equipment you need for the Jockey Hollow’s “Games of Thrones” is a cedar plank and a creme brûlée torch.


What about something with cranberry in it?
Eh. How can you taste anything else in a drink with a heavy cranberry presence? If you simply must, try Slate’s Cosmopolis.

Granted, so here’s an idea: If part of your holiday tradition is to serve, or to pretend to enjoy being served, Martinelli’s non-alcoholic sparkling cider, then invest in a bottle of cranberry bitters. Just two dashes will cut the so-called cider’s cloying sweetness, converting it into a passable mocktail.

Is there a traditional Thanksgiving cocktail?

The Thanksgiving Special, made with dry gin, dry vermouth, apricot brandy, and lemon juice, is a toot to suit the horn of plenty. It’s obscure—and sometimes misidentified as The Thanksgiving Cocktail—but it’s good.

What are its virtues?
It is a day drink as bright as the light behind a yellow leaf—a light note above the earth tones of the roots and dark grains of the vast heavy meal.

Tell me more.
Its tartness is proof that merely a large squeeze of lemon will fuse with booze and make a glass sing.

Do go on.
It’s like this: You have to get gin and vermouth anyway, right? For Uncle Steve? The only thing more annoying than Uncle Steve after his third martini is Uncle Steve before his first martini, so you might as well pick up something new and interesting while you’re at the store.

What is the history of the Thanksgiving Special?
It’s a variation on a cult classic called the Darb Cocktail. A Thanksgiving Special is a Darb with a cherry garnish. It seems to date from the 1930s. 

Jason Wilson—the author of Boozehound and arguably the world’s leading expert on the Darb—tells us it’s Jazz Age slang meaning “a handsome and excellent chap.” There’s a passage in The Sun Also Rises I could quote you …

Nah, I’m good, bro. Hey, Jason, you ever heard of this drink?
“Sadly, I have never heard of the Thanksgiving Cocktail!” Wilson told me in an email. “But it makes sense that the only difference is a cherry. I can picture some mixologist struggling to create a new cocktail for a seasonal menu and looking a tray of cherries and saying, Eureka! Such small detail changes are always the way. Actually, though, a homemade brandied cherry might be a lot nicer than the twist of lemon peel that the Darb calls for.”

The Washington Post published the formula for Wilson’s Darb, which departs from the antique proportions of The Savoy Cocktail Book. Slate encourages home bartenders to start with the original Darb recipe and tinker according to the whims of their taste and the character of their ingredients. (N.B.: Plymouth gin is too mellow to serve this drink handsomely; that culinary pun is inadvisable.)

That’s cool, but I decided I want a tall drink—a highball or a cooler or something.
Try this:

The Fourth-Thursday Frou-Frou
1 ounce dry gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 ounce good apricot brandy, such as Marie Brizard Apry or Rothman &
    Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur
Scant ½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Club soda
Garnish: one or more brandied cherries

Shake the first four ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled Collins glass filled with ice. Top with club soda. Garnish and serve. Enjoy, and stop enjoying when you can no longer say “The Fourth-Thursday Frou-Frou three times fast” three times fast.