Martha Stewart was wrong! Yes, I said it. The Queen of Entertaining got it wrong this Thanksgiving. While her recipe for a Cranberry Old Fashioned was delightful, it needed some serious tweaking to provide the smooth, sweet, balanced and refreshing pre-dinner drink I was going for. The end result, I don’t mind telling you, was a massive hit. I detailed my quest to create the perfect Thanksgiving cocktail (I made a rule of using bourbon and cranberries as the base), and did much research on the subject before finally deciding on Martha’s recipe. Here’s how the experimenting went.

Martha’s recipe called for muddling cranberries in 2 teaspoons of sugar—a necessity when working with fresh cranberries. The problem with muddling fresh cranberries is that they become so pulpy, when you mix in the bourbon and ice you’re left with a sludgy (but delicious) mess! I did try substituting maple syrup for the sugar, but found that while the maple flavour really balanced the bourbon, the cranberries were too tart to be fully subdued by the sweetness of the syrup. I also found that the end result was an exceedingly strong drink. While I enjoy neat spirits, not all of my guests have such prepared palates. What to do??

Muddling is tough work.

Problem One: The Pulp

Martha said nothing about straining! Why would she not do this? Maybe she wanted to preserve some of the red skin of the cranberry in the drink to make it more festive looking? Anyone who knows anything about cranberries knows that the flesh is white, and to extract the red colour the cranberry needs to be cooked! Fail.

Solution: Straining is key in this recipe unless you want to end up with a mouth full of cranberry bits. One thing to note is that LOTS of liquid gets trapped in the muddled cranberry, so an extra bit of pressing helps you squeeze out every last bit of goodness into the glass.

Cranberries awaiting their inevitable annihilation.

Problem Two: The Sugar

White sugar doesn’t give that Autumn flavour one looks for in a Thanksgiving Cocktail, and maple syrup isn’t sweet enough to counteract the bitterness of the cranberry.

Solution: Muscovado Sugar, the big daddy of sweeteners that come in crystals, is essential for adding that Thanksgiving twist to this cocktail. The secret, of course, is that brown sugar is made with molasses, thus giving this cocktail a richer, deeper sweetness.  Use a heaping tablespoon for each cocktail.

Four Roses Bourbon was the favourite after experimenting with a few others.

Problem Three: The Strength

There’s a lot of bourbon in this here drink. Martha does recommend adding a bit of water to thin it out, but I wanted to add a bit of texture as well.

Solution: Sparkling water. Adding a few bubbles not only gives this drink a bit of a lift, it cuts the sugar and bourbon back to lend a softer quality to the base. Now, there are some people out there (Purists, you might call them. I call them grumpuses.) who claim that once you add sparkling water to an Old Fashioned, you can’t call it an Old Fashioned. To them, I say, “You’ve completely missed the point of Thanksgiving.” This, like all spirits and drinks, should be enjoyed and shared, not criticised and derided by cocktail holier-than-thous. If I really wanted to get zesty, I could argue that certain recipes from the turn of the 20th Century call for a dash of seltzer. But I’m not going to go there. That’s not what Thanksgiving’s about.

Without further ado, the final recipe for my Thanksgiving cocktail.

Old Fashioned Thanksgiving

8 fresh cranberries

1 heaping tbsp muscovado sugar

1 dash angostura bitters

50ml bourbon (Four Roses Bourbon worked splendidly)

Orange peel (about 1-2 inches in length)

Sparkling water


Muddle the cranberries with the brown sugar and bitters, mixing until you have a creamy, smooth texture. Add in the bourbon and stir so that the mixture is fully incorporated. Strain into a tumbler over ice. Top up with a splash of sparkling water. Squeeze the orange peel over the cocktail to allow the juice and oils to perfume the drink. Garnish with the orange peel and a single cranberry.

Give thanks!