Though it’s been lost to history—and perhaps should never have been recorded in the first place—somewhere along the way, a person decided that this Thanksgiving would be the Thanksgiving to lob a ruby-colored scoop of gelatinous cranberry material into their holiday cocktail.
By now, Food and Wine has suggested you “Use That Cranberry Sauce in Cocktails This Thanksgiving.” Chowhound advocates that you get “Cranberry Sauced” on Turkey Day with everything from cranberry sauce mulled wines to cranberry sauce jello shots; Martha Stewart Magazine has asked: “The Most Surprising Cocktail Ingredient? Cranberry Sauce.” Today, a quick Google search reveals recipes for Cranberry Sauce Bourbon Cocktails, Cranberry Sauce Whiskey Cocktails, Cranberry Sauce Margaritas, Cranberry Sauce Vodka Smashes and Cranberry Sauce Mules.
How did we get to this place where each November the divisive condiment-in-a-can doubles as a universal cocktail modifier?
“Cranberry sauce has a genuine nostalgia factor, and nostalgia plus cocktails is always appealing,” says Carey Jones, spirits writer and co-author of Be Your Own Bartender. She penned the aforementioned Food and Wine piece.
Of course, cranberry cocktails themselves are nothing unusual. The Cape Cod, which emerged in the mid-20th century thanks to a corporate push from Ocean Spray, remains a common call drink for a certain segment of the drinking population. And while the simple mixture of vodka and cranberry juice has waned in popularity over the years, the inclusion of cranberry juice in the Cosmopolitan preserved the ingredient’s status as a backbar mainstay well into the new millennium.
Yet, until recently, cranberry cocktails were never really a part of Thanksgiving festivities, the one annual holiday where the tart berry has held an irrevocable seat at the table for decades. Most food and drink writers, instead, have offered more traditional wine pairings each year, like The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, who has been recommending Thanksgiving wine since 2004. (In 2006, chef Tyler Florence touted a Cranberry Champagne Cocktail made with cranberry juice and frozen cranberries, but the drink was geared more toward the Christmas table than the Thanksgiving table.)
But in 2010, around Thanksgiving, a slew of cranberry sauce cocktail recipes began rolling out across a variety of media outlets, changing the course of search engine–optimized, mid-November internet articles forever. The initial instigator, it seems, was Imbibe magazine.
“It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and if your fridge looks anything like ours, it’s full of leftovers,” reads the uncredited headnote to their Cranberry Cobbler Cocktail. “Sure, you can slather a turkey sandwich with all that extra cranberry sauce, but we’ve got a better idea—make a cocktail!” The recipe called for two barspoons of leftover cranberry sauce along with spiced rum, orange juice and Angostura bitters, shaken and served up with an orange twist.
The post did not exactly light the World Wide Web on fire, but, like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, once the precedent was set everyone suddenly strived to match the effort.
“Know that jiggly gelatinous red cranberry stuff? You can use it to get drunk!” one Buzzfeed article declared in 2012, offering three canned-cranberry-sauce cocktail recipes, including one called The Golden Given, an indulgent mixture of aged rum, amaretto, egg white and heavy cream.
The following two years would see an explosion of clickbait-craving, over-the-top cranberry sauce cocktails hit the internet. “Turn your leftover Thanksgiving side into a boozy slushy,” reads the description of Tasting Table’s Cranberry Sauce Frozen Cosmo, a recipe from 2015 that features a full quarter-cup of cranberry sauce. The accompanying video would go on to garner more than 100,000 views and 300 shares on Facebook, with most users excited to give it a whirl.
Of course, the practice had its detractors.
“By the time you end up with cranberry sauce, you’ve already lost the essential tartness of cranberries, so you just have something that is the jellied equivalent of Ocean Spray,” says Joaquín Simó, a bartender and partner at New York’s Pouring Ribbons. “That’s rarely an ingredient that’s going to serve as a focal point for a cocktail. I think this is one of those times when the juice is not worth the squeeze, as it were.”
And yet, the cocktail world has not entirely refrained from offering their own salvos to the mounting trend—though rarely do their contributions advocate for tossing a dollop of canned cranberry sauce directly into the drink. “Right out of the can it’s too thick to shake,” says San Antonio bartender Omar Cormier. “Jam and marmalades incorporate fairly easily into shaken cocktails, but the solid nature of cranberry sauce require[s] some science to make it useful,” he explains. In his Brooklynite Cosmo, he cuts the sauce with cranberry juice for better integration.
“Cranberry … has both sweetness and acidity, so there is at least a little reason to think it’d be fun in drinks,” says Jones. Personally, she likes to use leftover homemade cranberry-orange zest relish and combine it with hot water and Grand Marnier to make a toddy. But even Jones is skeptical about whether this trend is actually trendy. “I don’t think that [cranberry sauce cocktails] are actually gaining ground in home kitchens. It can be an awkward ingredient to work with.”
While we look to pumpkin ale around Halloween, eggnog on Christmas and Champagne for the New Year, no single drink has emerged as the default refreshment of Thanksgiving. Perhaps the cranberry sauce cocktail simply needs more time to evolve. Let us be thankful this year that the green bean casserole sour or the creamed corn flip won’t be making a cameo at the holiday table.