Wishing you a very merry cranberry

These are the glory days for cranberries. The weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas and on into the New Year are the moments when the ruby fruit seizes the spotlight, not just wearing the guise of cranberry sauce but also dressing up tarts, muffins, relishes, even decorations.

And yes. Cocktails.

Cranberries were a major component in a previous Sunday Special, the Lady Whomp, a perfect Valentine’s Day tipple. But that recipe calls for cranberry-infused gin, which is hard to find commercially and needs to be made at home at least a day in advance.

The more direct route to a cranberry cocktail employs ordinary store-bought cranberry juice. It happens to be the key ingredient in three iconic drinks, all sublime sips during the holiday season or any time.

A word of caution: Don’t make the mistake of buying “pure” or unsweetened cranberry juice, which is astringent beyond belief and will turn your tongue into a numb, desiccated lump. To be palatable, cranberry juice must be sweetened, but mass-market brands accomplish this by simply adding tons of refined sugar. The better approach—the one used by my choice, R.W. Knudsen—is to mix naturally sweet apple and grape juices with the cranberry juice to make it drinkable. I actually prefer Knudsen’s Cranberry-Pomegranate juice, which ramps down the sweetness even more.

Cranberry juice does offer a wide range of health benefits, from vitamins and antioxidants to a possible (but not clinically proven) ability to prevent urinary tract infections. But those are a mere bonus; the main reason to put cranberry in your cocktail is that it pairs so beautifully with booze.

The most straightforward concoction is the Cape Codder, which is nothing more than vodka and cranberry juice on ice with a squeeze of lime. The drink probably has its origins in the Ocean Spray marketing department, which during the 1960s didn’t miss a trick when it came to hawking the company’s flagship product. But vodka-cranberry drinks existed as early as the 1940s, under the names the Harpoon, the Red Devil, the Rangoon Ruby, and probably others.

Variations on the Cape Codder are seemingly endless. The Madras adds orange juice and floats, rather than stirs, the cranberry juice on top. The Bay Breeze does the same using pineapple juice. The Bahía Breeze, a creation by Dale DeGroff, keeps the pineapple juice but subs out the vodka for rum.

I’m not a huge fan of pineapple, so my favorite souped-up Codder is the Sea Breeze, which adds grapefruit juice. The combination of two tart-sweet fruit juices gives what’s really a basic highball a surprisingly complex quality. And since I prefer gin to vodka, I make mine a Gin Sea Breeze—a drink I’ve seen nowhere else but probably isn’t original.

Finally, there’s the most famous cranberry cocktail of all, the Cosmopolitan. Widely credited to DeGroff (who denies paternity), the drink—which adds citrus liqueur to the Cape Codder formula and is served in a martini glass—first appeared under that name on bar menus in the 1980s. A few years later Madonna was spotted consuming one in a New York bar, and the cocktail’s popularity greatly expanded; by the turn of the century, the drink’s prominence in the HBO series Sex and the City caused it to explode.

Many versions of the Cosmo call for citrus-flavored vodka, but I suggest unadulterated spirits and an extra squeeze of lime juice. DeGroff also adds a garnish of flamed orange peel, which creates a spectacular display of glowing citrus oil over the surface of the drink; it should definitely be considered optional.

Unless you’re serving Madonna. Or just filled with the spirit of the season.

Cape Codder

Adapted from Ultimate Bar Book by Mittie Hellmich

2 ounces vodka
4 to 5 ounces cranberry juice
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish

Shake the liquid ingredients vigorously with ice. Strain into a highball glass over ice. Garnish with lime wedge.

Gin Sea Breeze

2 ounces gin
3 ounces cranberry juice
1 1/2 ounces grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed
Lime wheel for garnish

Shake the liquid ingredients vigorously with ice. Strain into a highball glass over ice. Garnish with lime wheel. 


Adapted from Bon Appétit

2 ounces vodka
1 ounce cranberry juice
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce triple sec
Lime wheel for garnish

Combine liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill shaker with ice, cover, and shake vigorously until outside of shaker is very cold, about 20 seconds. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with lime wheel. 

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