Here’s What Bartenders, Whiskey Experts, and Winemakers Drink at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a food holiday, first and foremost. That’s the main reason that, while most hosts obsess over how to cook and carve the perfect turkey, what to drink often becomes an afterthought. With so many great wines, liquors, and cocktails in the world (or craft beer), it can almost be overwhelming to consider the liquid side of the meal. So we asked a dozen experts how they handle the booze situation for their holiday get-together. Here’s what we learned about the best Thanksgiving drinks to try this year.

Pre-Dinner Drinking Means Cocktail Hour

For some drinks experts, the lead-up to the sit-down is all about cocktails.

Chateau Montelena winemaker Matt Crafton knows everyone will expect wine for the meal, but likes to start the evening with an Old Fashioned.

“Digging out of harvest, Thanksgiving is really my first opportunity to recognize the new season, and to be truly grateful for all that we have," says Crafton. "Whiskey is where I lean these days, so my pre-dinner cocktail of choice is a Spiced Old Fashioned that incorporates a blend of cinnamon, clove, and anise along with orange bitters. It’s killer. Just please don’t destroy it with a maraschino cherry. Wine is easy: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. It will pair with anything on your table and shows your guests that you have incredibly good taste.”

It’s a similar trajectory for Kenneth McCoy, partner at The Rum House.

“If I’m going to drink on Thanksgiving,” explains McCoy, “I like to start with a Rye Manhattan with Bulleit or Wild Turkey and Antica vermouth. As the day progresses, red wine is wonderful with the meal, preferably something from France. After dinner, I like rare whiskies like Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon or the BMH 21yr old rye, (and I happen to be lucky enough to have both of these)."

Wine With Dinner (Or Maybe a Cocktail?)

One the turkey has been carved, wine becomes the natural pick. It’s easier to serve throughout the meal, most importantly, but tends to play better with food.

Zachary Pease, owner and beverage director at New York's My Friend Duke, red wine is the culmination of a day of drinking.

“We have a pretty elaborate Thanksgiving ritual starting with Bloody Marys with dumb and elaborate garnishes and then a cocktail theme for the rest of the day, red wine with dinner, and pretty much for the rest of the evening. It's just about doing silly things with friends and family and establishing traditions. After dinner we all gather at a friend's house for the last 16 years for a gathering we have dubbed 'Wine Lips' because everyone brings a bottle and everyone wakes up the next day with red lips.”

But not everyone goes the red wine route for dinner.

Elizabeth Stewart, manager at Majorelle at the Lowell Hotel, recommends a cocktail that brings together all the season’s flavors.

“The Garnet Blush is a delicious drink that translates from fall to winter,” she explains. “The warm spices in the apple cider base captures the flavor of fall, while the splash of cranberry juice pays tribute to traditional dishes enjoyed during the winter holiday season."

Here's the recipe:

Garnet Blush

  • 2oz Spiced Rum (Sailor Jerry’s)

  • 1oz Calvados

  • Apple cider to fill (approximately 2/3 of the glass)

  • Top with cranberry juice and a splash of soda

  • Garnish with three fresh cranberries on a skewer

In a highball glass filled with ice, fill 2/3 with apple cider. Next, add Calvados and Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum; lightly stir. Top with splash of cranberry juice and soda water. Garnish with three fresh cranberries on a skewer.

“For Thanksgiving,” explains Will Wyatt, owner and beverage director of New York's Mister Paradise, “I generally drink wine or whiskey, since it is easy to pour and easy to sip. However, being the bartender of the family, I always end up bringing the basic tools to make some sort of cocktail that I can whip up quickly. The past couple of years, I’ve brought some nice rye whiskey, a little bottle of absinthe, and some Peychaud’s bitters to make a Sazerac or two for my particularly thirsty family members.”

After Dinner and Dessert

Of the dozen experts we talked to, nearly all of them said they prefer to end a big meal with an amaro.

"Amari, which are traditionally shared at the end of a meal, are especially popular during the holidays when friends and families are all gathered around one table,” explains Tad Carducci, a national ambassador for Amaro Montenegro. Amaro Montenegro, in particular, is a great choice for the holidays because it offers the perfect balance between bitter and sweet, and is wonderfully spicy and herbaceous.

Brandon Lester, the beverage director at Asset Restaurant in New York, prefers Montenegro because it’s “balanced with a touch of sweetness on the finish, which rounds out the notes of candied orange peel and toasted walnut."

Ryan Gavin, beverage director at New York's Gran Tivoli, says amaro and fernets are essential after a big Thanksgiving meal.

“My current favorites are both from the Marche region of Italy. Amaro Sibilla is sweet, strong and bitter,” he says. “It has the perfect balance to assist with the digestion of that last turkey leg you probably didn’t need. If you’re feeling adventurous, and love bitter flavors, I love Meletti Fernet. It’s more bitter but perfectly balanced with just enough sweetness to coat the palate and make you feel a little better.”

For serving, Gavin recommends that you either keep your amaro in the fridge and serve it neat, “or serve it over a few ice cubes. If you can’t wait to get past dessert, amaro poured over vanilla ice cream is just perfect, too.”

What Guests Should Bring

Marshall Minaya, the beverage director at NYC’s Valerie, says bring a taste of home with you to make it personal.

“My favorite spirit to gift to someone is something local. I am a big fan of the Breuckelen spirits, and they distill a five-minute walk from my apartment,” says Minaya. “Can't get much more local than that. My favorite out of their line is their 77 Rye.”

If you’d prefer to go the wine route, Alexander LaPratt, partner at Atrium DUMBO, Beasts & Bottles restaurants, and founder LaPratt New York, suggests going with cabernet sauvignon, which he considers the ultimate crowd-pleasing varietal.

“One of my favorites right now is Trinchero's BRV 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Trinchero is using sustainably sourced fruit from its vineyards in the mountain appellations of Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder,” explains LaPratt. “This wine showcases a fruit profile of dark berry, plum, and cassis which is rounded out with hints of licorice, saddle leather, clove, nutmeg, and just a sprinkle of vanilla—which is sure to work well with all of the baking spice seasoning upon your holiday table."

Trinchero Napa Valley 2013 BRV Cabernet Sauvignon
Courtesy image

Trinchero Napa Valley 2013 BRV Cabernet Sauvignon [$80;,]

Get it

The Only Friendsgiving Cocktail You Need

Cocktail authority and whiskey expert Aaron Goldfarb knows the rise of Friendsgiving celebrations is mostly due to the fact that eating a “gigantic, gluttonous, tryptophan-laden meal is always fun.”

For his new book, Gather Around Cocktails, Goldfarb wanted to create a cocktail “with a little more oomph, one that mimics the flavors in everyone’s leftovers sandwich, The Gobbler.”

The Gobbler

By Aaron Goldfarb

  • (Makes 8 cocktails)

  • 12 ounces Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

  • 4 ounces Laird’s Applejack

  • 4 ounces Spiced Cranberry Syrup (recipe follows)

  • 24 dashes The Bitter Truth Original Celery Bitters

  • Stuffing cubes, for garnish (recipe follows)

In a pitcher, pre-batch by combining the bourbon, Applejack, and syrup, and stir. (I like to return it to the Wild Turkey bottle once mixed.) To make individual drinks, pour 21⁄2 ounces of the batch into a rocks glass and top with three dashes of bitters and one large ice cube. Garnish with a stuffing cube on a toothpick.

Spiced Cranberry Syrup

  • 2 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen)

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 cup dry white wine

  • 1 cup water

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • Juice and peel of 1 orange 1 vanilla bean, split

  • 1 star anise

Place the cranberries in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar, wine, and water, and cook just below a simmer, until everything is combined. Remove from heat and add the cinnamon sticks, orange juice and peel, vanilla bean, and star anise. Stir together and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a container and refrigerate until ready to use or up to 2 weeks.

  • Stuffing cubes

  • Leftover stuffing

  • Olive oil, for drizzling

  • Leftover gravy

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut the stuffing into 1-inch cubes, place on a baking sheet, and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes, then flip over the cubes. Drizzle with the gravy and bake until dark brown and crisp.