The cranberry is a fickle mistress. Taken by themselves, the hard little morsels are sour to the point of cruelty, pretty much only useable to the most devoted of culinary masochists. It’s hardly surprising, then, that cranberries are usually mixed with a bunch of other flavorings and sweeteners, cooked and mashed, canned and crushed.
On the bright side, even under a heavy blanket of sugar, boiled half to death and buried in spices, the cranberry’s tart tang remains a fine counterpoint to bland turkey. On the down side, all that sugar and spice, cooking and crushing exact a price of their own, pushing the bitter berry in the other direction, making it a sickly-sweet thing that slides toward the cough syrup end of the scale. Eventually, the fresh, clean flavor of the cranberry almost disappears, leaving behind a sour taste and little else.
This problem is only multiplied when it comes to liqueur-making. On the surface, cranberries would seem to be the perfect candidate for liqueur flavoring: they’re brightly colored and brightly flavored, well equipped to stand up to other mixers, with a crisp, clean taste that balances summery freshness with richer, more autumnal tones. The trouble is, much of that nuance disappears when they are cooked, sweetened and spiced. This may help explain why Boggs, the most famous cranberry liqueur, folded up shop a few years ago.
Today, the mainstream cranberry liqueur options are few and far between: a few small distilleries make small batches of artisanal mixes. Unfortunately, however, their products can be hard to find. Alternately, some of the big liqueur/schnapps makers like De Kuypers have their toes in the market, but their bottlings have all the nuance and richness of a trash can full of boozy Kool-Aid.
On the bright side, it’s fairly easy to make your own cranberry liqueur. This recipe is simple and straightforward, with plenty of room for experimentation. I’ve suggested using regular-proof vodka (personally, I prefer Svedka for this particular recipe), which will make a fairly mild drink that you can sip straight out of the bottle. However, if you prefer your holiday cheer with a nice side order of inebriation, high-proof vodka or grain alcohol also works.
One warning: cranberries nicely hide the bite of high-proof booze, which means that a full-alcohol batch is liable to sneak right up on you. Buyer beware!
Here's what you'll need to make it yourself:
- ¾ cups sugar
- ¾ cups water
- 1 lb cranberries, cleaned, picked over and rinsed
- 1 ½ cups vodka
- Peel from one lime, no pith (use a vegetable peeler)