Back to basics with holiday cocktails

Brian Rung

    November is here! The Christmas décor is on display at many stores and morning shows are flooded with recipes, all of them using pumpkin spice.
    In years past I would have taken this opportunity to feature a seasonal cocktail to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. Rather than give you my take on the trendy turkey day cocktails currently blowing up your social media newsfeed, I figured this year we would go back to basics.
    Maybe Uncle Bill has had a Manhattan after every Thanksgiving dinner since 1972, and perhaps Aunt Mildred always has a Vodka Tonic while watching the Lions game.
    Let's make a quick run to your local spirits retailer with the shopping list below and this year your Thanksgiving cocktails will be almost as memorable as mom's turkey and dressing. Mom, I said almost.
Holiday bar shopping list
    • American whiskey (bourbon or rye)
    • Vodka
    • Gin
    • Sweet and dry vermouth, one 375 ml bottle of each
    • Tonic water
    • Cranberry juice
    • Angostura bitters
    • Soda for mixing (Coca Cola and 7 Up are most popular)
    • Limes/lemons
    • 2 bags of ice
Bar tools
    • Mixing glass (nothing fancy, sturdy pint glass will work)
    • Hawthorne Strainer
    • Bar spoon
    • Jigger/1-2 oz measuring cup
    • Stir sticks/cocktail straws
    The classic American Thanksgiving dinner calls for classic American cocktails. The Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Martini are three iconic cocktails that pair perfectly with holiday meals.
    If you learn to make only one cocktail, make it the Old Fashioned. Less is more in the Old Fashioned as seen in the classic recipe using only whiskey, bitters and sugar.
Old Fashioned
    Combine in mixing glass:
    • 2 oz bourbon or rye
    • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
    • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon simple syrup
    • Stir with ice
    • Strain into Old Fashioned glass (ice optional)
    • Garnish with orange peel
    We tend to gravitate toward the darker colored spirits when the weather turns colder. Perhaps no other cocktail looks more warming and inviting in the glass than the classic Manhattan.  
    Combine in mixing glass:
    • 2 ounces American whiskey (bourbon or rye)
    • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
    • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
    • Stir with ice
    • Strain into cocktail (Martini) glass
    • Garnish with cherry
    Eat, drink and be merry? Whether it was the Roaring Twenties or your rehearsal dinner last year, the Martini was there. The Dry Martini is a cocktail that every holiday host simply must know how to make correctly. Luckily, the Martini is literally gin with a dash of dry vermouth.  
    Combine in mixing glass:
    • 2 oz gin
    • 1/8 oz dry vermouth
    • Stir with ice
    • Strain into Martini glass
    • Garnish with olive or twist of lemon
The “Tonics”
    There are a few ways to handle bar service for the “Tonics” and other two ingredient cocktails. Personally, I prefer to leave a bottle of vodka and a bottle of gin at my serving station (kitchen counter) along with a bucket of ice, a bottle of tonic water, glasses, lime wedges, and stir sticks.
    This “self-serve” bar station is ideal for Cousin Ned's celebratory Gin and Tonic following his MVP performance in the annual backyard bowl.  It is perfectly acceptable having a self-serve bar prior to dinner.
    Using this approach will allow guests to pour their preferred proportions during what amounts to Thanksgiving happy hour.  
    After dinner, it's okay to leave the self-serve station up, but be prepared to whip up drinks for your guests into the evening. First order of business after dinner is pumpkin pie. A cocktail is a close second. Before serving yourself, make the rounds to see that everyone who would like a drink has one.
    If one of your guests would like a Vodka Tonic, Vodka Cranberry, Jack and Coke, or any other two-ingredient cocktail, you're in luck. Both ingredients happen to be in the name of the drink, and the pour is the same for all of them. The standard pour at most bars is 1 3/4 ounces, sometimes 1 1/2 ounces. This means that the amount of spirit is around a 1 1/4 ounce jigger. The rest is your mixer.  
    New to home bar service? No problem. We'll start with Aunt Mildred's Vodka Tonic. When preparing a two ingredient cocktail, begin by filling the glass with ice. Then, add your 1 1/4 ounvces vodka and top with tonic.
    Drop in a lime wedge and you're in business. Be sure to have plenty of stir sticks, napkins and coasters around the room as well. If one of your guests orders a double, simply double the amount of spirit, not the amount of your mixer.
    The “two ingredient” cocktails are served in lowball or double Old Fashioned glasses.  
    Most of the two-ingredient cocktails are garnished with limes. If you cut lime wedges in advance place them in a small bowl of club soda to keep them from drying out.
    Simple syrup is a 1:1 mix of sugar to water. I usually make a cup or two prior to the arrival of my guests.
    Ice is often overlooked when building your holiday bar. Pick up a few bags of cocktail ice from your local grocery store. Typically it's the “clear” ice and is similar in size to what is used in most bars. The ice made in your freezer's ice maker will be cloudy and often too large for cocktail applications.
    It really is that easy to put together a classic “all day” bar for your holiday gathering. You don't have to be wearing a white apron while sporting a handlebar moustache to turn out a great Old Fashioned. You don't have to throw bottles in the air and light drinks on fire to hand Aunt Mildred her Vodka tonic when the Lions blow a late lead.  
    Preparation is the key. If you have on-hand the ingredients listed above and are willing to take a few minutes prior to your gathering learning how to make two or three classic drinks, your Thanksgiving gathering will be one that's easy to remember and hard to beat.
    Until next week, enjoy responsibly.