By Joe Dizney
There are lots of reasons to drink and prime among them is the human need to celebrate. While the current season offers many holidays to honor — cultural and social (Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa), religious (Christmas, Hanukkah), temporal (New Year’s Eve and Day) and even just plain goofy (Festivus!) — what we usually seem to be actually celebrating is each other.
These “holy days” are, at heart, festivals of human community and a marker of the things — good and bad—that we experience together — over and over — in our time on earth. They constitute a ritualized, collective sigh of joy and relief — “Look! We made it through another year!” — and in also remembering those of us who didn’t make it, a reminder of just how precious this all is.
To ourselves we raise a glass!
But while the social impulse and cultural imperative is to toast these moments with the “spirits” that holidays demand, there are those among us who for one reason or another must, or prefer to, celebrate non-alcoholically, and a flute of Martinelli’s may fit the bill in some quarters, but I am of the mind that a special occasion demands a special libation.
There are some commercially available non-alcoholic alternatives: 12NtM, a sparkling beverage, was created by noted chef David Burke and combines more than 60 herbs, spices, fruit juices and teas into a food-friendly “culinary” blend. Twelve comes in blanc and rouge varieties that are surprisingly complex and enjoyable. Both are available locally at Homespun Foods (232 Main St., Beacon).
California’s Navarro Vineyards (navarrowine.com) offers a couple of cold-pressed varietal grape juices — a Gewürztraminer and a Pinot Noir — in addition to a very useful Verjus (literally, “green juice”), a more acidic juice made from unripe grapes. (Lest you get the idea that these are some uppity version of Juicy Juice, realize that these alcohol-free potables are included on the wine list at Dan Barber’s award-winning Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Pocantico Hills.)
More to the topic at hand, the explosion of craft cocktail culture points to more bespoke and tastier solutions.
We’ve dealt with so-called “shrubs” before. To refresh your memory, this colonial American method of preserving fruit in a sweetened, vinegar-based syrup was used as a cooling summer beverage when mixed with soda. Later still, shrubs came to be mixed with alcohols, paving the way for a cornucopia of cocktails.
But on their own, sympathetically spiced and blended, they can offer a sophisticated drink alternative, and a food-friendly one, thanks to the vinegar — i.e., “sour wine”—base which is proven to stimulate the appetite and prime the taste buds.
Cranberries, seasonal, tart and available provide the base note for this Holiday Shrub and I suggest a menu of optional spices to allow you to make it your — and your guests — own. This shrub alone makes a fine “mocktail,” but I’ve included the recipe for a complementary spiced Apple Cider-Maple Syrup to both “up” the seasonal-regional referents and to serve as an additional stand-alone soda option.
Customize the proportions to your taste and experiment with them in combination with other juices, teas or sodas. Add alcohol if you like — it’s your choice. At times like these, no one should feel deprived or like they’re missing out. Cheers!
Holiday Cranberry Shrub
Makes about 3 cups
Zest/peel of one orange (in strips, i.e. not grated)
Juice of one orange plus water to make 2 cups total
3 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup raw sugar
About 2 tablespoons (total) spices (see Spice Note below)
1 cup good quality white varietal vinegar (Chardonnay, Moscato, Champagne)
In a medium saucepan, heat juice/water, cranberries, zest, spices and sugar until the mixture just begins to bubble. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the cranberries are soft (about 10 min.).
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Strain mixture through a mesh strainer, draining the liquid into a bowl. (Press down gently on mixture to extract as much juice as possible—you don’t want solids in the shrub.)
Add vinegar to the strained syrup and transfer the shrub to a sterile bottle or jar. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (Shrub can be kept for several months in the refrigerator.)
Spiced Apple-Maple Syrup
Makes about 1 cup
3 cups apple cider
2 tablespoons spices (see Spice Note below)
½ cup maple syrup
Combine cider and spices in a medium pot; bring to a boil over medium heat and reduce to ½ cup (about 15-20 minutes). (Note: Watch closely as not to burn or over-reduce.)
Remove from heat and add maple syrup. Stir to incorporate and strain through a fine mesh strainer into a small sterile bottle; allow to cool before refrigerating
Spice Note: For my Cranberry Shrub, the mix was six star anise pods, a teaspoon of cracked nutmeg, a teaspoon of smashed coriander seeds, one cinnamon stick and a couple of smashed cardamom pods. For the Cider-Maple Syrup, I used a teaspoon of cracked nutmeg, 8 to 10 smashed allspice berries. six bruised cloves and a teaspoon of cracked white pepper.
Pre-mixed mulling spices would be fine but any traditional holiday spices in sympathetic combinations will work. Cracked allspice berries and/or nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, bruised cloves, star anise are the immediate suggestions but I suggest experimenting with combinations of those and coriander seeds, cardamom, ginger (fresh or crystalized), black or white pepper (or even cubed), curry powders or even fresh rosemary.
To make a Cranberry Shrub (non-alcoholic): Mix two tablespoons of cranberry shrub with about 10 ounces sparkling water. Stir, add crushed ice.
To make an Apple Cider-Maple soda (non-alcoholic): Add two tablespoons syrup to 10 ounces sparkling water. Stir, add crushed ice.
To make a Holiday Mocktail (non-alcoholic): Mix two tablespoons of cranberry shrub and ½ to one teaspoon Apple Cider-Maple Syrup with about 10 ounces sparkling water or a combination of juice, sparkling juice, tea or ginger ale.
To make a Holiday Cocktail: Fill a cocktail shaker halfway full of ice. Add one ounce of cranberry shrub and two ounces of bourbon, rum or vodka, one teaspoon apple cider-maple syrup. Shake until chilled and pour into a cold glass. Optionally, add ½ ounce of an orange-based liqueur (Cointreau, Grand Marnier) and/or two to three drops of cocktail bitters.