This Thanksgiving, Make a Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned

Yes, really. It’s a gimmick. But it's also good. Trust me.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! This week’s edition is coming out a couple days early because of the holiday. And since I promised more gimmicky but delicious holiday drinks: We’re going to make a Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned. 

I know what you’re probably thinking: This is silly. This is a gimmick. This is crude cocktail-newsletter pandering. What’s next? A vodka appletini? 

Well, OK. I don’t entirely disagree with you. It is kind of a gimmick. And, sure, maybe it’s kind of silly. It might even be somewhat fair to call it pandering. 

But it’s not crude, and it’s pretty far from an appletini. On the contrary, we’re going to make this drink because it is, in fact, good. Not cloying or over-sweet, not aggressively spiced or too eager to show off its signature flavor. No, if you make this drink right, you get a delicious, classic-style cocktail that also tastes of pumpkin pie. And who doesn’t like pumpkin pie? 

The main reason I’m sending it this week should be fairly obvious: It’s Thanksgiving, and a boozy cocktail that tastes like pumpkin pie makes a great Turkey Day nightcap. Relatedly, this is the one week of the year when I can reasonably expect that many of you will already have pumpkin puree — an important ingredient in both pumpkin pie and this cocktail — in your pantry. 

But I’m also sending it now because it’s a useful illustration of some of the principles and techniques I discussed in my recent newsletter on syrups: Indeed, it’s fair to say that the pretty much the entire trick to this drink is to make a good, solid pumpkin-spice syrup. So today, we’re going to learn how to make that syrup, and then we’ll look at several different ways to use it. 

A Syrup You Can Make In an Afternoon

As I said in the newsletter on syrups, custom syrups are the easiest, fastest, least expensive way to add novel flavors into cocktails. Syrups are just liquid and sugar, and compared to booze, sugar is quite cheap. And unlike boozy infusions, which can take days or weeks, syrups are also relatively quick to make. 

The Thanksgiving Sour we made last year, for example, is delicious and relatively easy to make. But it also takes several days to infuse, which means you need to plan pretty far ahead. Making the syrup for year’s drink, in contrast, takes just a few hours, nearly all of which is cook time, where you can do something else. The active portion of this process should take you no more than a half an hour, and possibly closer to 15 minutes. 

Something else I wrote in the newsletter on syrups was that I rarely make stovetop heated syrups anymore. Instead, I either use a blender, for most basic syrups, or an immersion circulator — sometimes known as a sous vide or a water bath — to perform rapid infusions using heat. 

I find that immersion circulator syrups produce much more consistent, much more flavorful syrups that are far easier to control than stovetop syrups. And in fact, my first attempt at making a Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned was based on a recipe that called for a stovetop syrup...which, at least in my attempt, didn’t work. 

I don’t want to blame the creator of that recipe. The problems may well have been some error on my part. But the stovetop version of this syrup came out both watery and imbalanced, and there were other aspects of the overall cocktail spec that weren’t to my taste either. The proportions were all off, and the drink was far too light in body. I wanted something heavy, almost thick — something more like pumpkin pie, in other words. But I also didn’t want a drink that felt seriously mushy and globby. 

This seemed like a challenge. But even though the first try didn’t work, I still thought the idea had potential. 

After all, pumpkin pie is a delicious, rich, texture-specific mix of sugar, seasonal spices, and autumnal harvest fruit. Old Fashioneds are just high(ish)-proof, seasonally appropriate booze plus some sugar and bitter spice. In theory, at least, it ought to be possible to capture the essence of pumpkin pie in that format. 

And after several tries, I made it work. 

How to Make Pumpkin Spice Syrup

Like I said, the main trick here is the syrup. And the syrup, at heart, is just a rich (2:1) demerara syrup infused with pumpkin puree and pumpkin spice using an immersion circulator. This syrup works very much like the demerara gum syrup I wrote up early this year, although it doesn’t employ gum arabic.

The water bath brings everything in the bag up to a perfectly consistent temperature. The heat then extracts the flavors from the spice and the puree for several hours. Finally, at the end of the process, you strain out the heavy solids, chill the mix, and you’re good to go. 

There is one other trick to this, too. And that’s to make a custom pumpkin spice blend.

This one comes from an old family recipe on my wife’s side. We typically keep a little pre-made batch of it around the house, but you can mix it up in a minute or two by combining:

  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon 

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground clove

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mace

Just measure all the spices into a small bowl and mix them up with a fork or small whisk. 

If you don’t have these spices on hand or don’t want to use this step, you can always use a store bought pumpkin spice mix. It won’t taste exactly the same — they tend to be a little bit spicier, a little hotter, whereas the custom mix above is a little bit more gentle and warming — but it should be close enough to work. 

Here’s what you’ll need to make the syrup:

Tools:

  • Kitchen scale

  • Bowl(s)

  • Blender

  • Immersion circulator or sous vide cooker (I use an Anova)

  • Gallon sized ziploc bag

  • Chinois or fine mesh strainer 

  • Tupperware or squeeze bottle to store finished syrup

Ingredients:

  • 66 grams pumpkin puree (I use Libby’s)

  • 3 teaspoons pumpkin spice blend (store bought or homemade)

  • 300 grams demerara sugar 

  • 250 grams water 

  1. Fill a large, heat-safe bowl with water, then insert your immersion circulator, turn it on, and set the temperature to 145 F. This will be your water bath. This will take a few minutes to warm up, so you want to get this started before you do anything else. 

  2. While the immersion circulator is heating up, measure all the primary ingredients (the spice blend, the sugar, the water, and the pumpkin puree), and then combine them in a blender. Blend on high for 2-3 minutes. 

  3. You should now have a not-quite-integrated, somewhat rough brown glop. Pour this unheated glop into a gallon size Ziploc bag. 

  4. Now, you want to eliminate as much air from that bag as possible. The easiest way to do this is first push air out with your hands, then zip the bag about half to three-quarters of the way closed. Then gently, slowly dip the bag into the water, dipping it further and further until only the closure remains dry. This should push the rest of the air out of the bag. (This is called the “water displacement method,” and you can see a video of it here.)

  5. As the last of the air is being pushed out, zip the bag fully closed. Set the bag on the counter and wait for the immersion circulator to finish heating up.

  6. When the immersion circulator reaches 145 degrees, return the bag to the water bath, making sure not to let air out or allow the zipper to dip below the water line. The goal is to heat the pumpkin spice syrup goop in as close to an airtight environment as possible without introducing any additional water. 

  7. Let the syrup heat in the water bath for two hours. 

  8. After two hours, remove the bag with the syrup. (You can turn off the immersion circulator.) You should see a syrup that is darker and better integrated — but still fairly heavy and gloopy. 

  9. Next, you need to strain out the heaviest solids. The easiest way to do this is to pour the entire mix through a chinois or fine mesh strainer. You can also squeeze it through cheesecloth. 

  10. The final syrup will still be somewhat thicker and heavier than a conventional 2:1 sugar syrup (not surprising, since it’s been integrated with pumpkin puree). But it won’t be too far off, and should be of a weight that combines nicely in cocktails. 

  11. Put the syrup in a squeeze bottle or tupperware container, then store in the refrigerator. It should last at least two weeks. (If you’re concerned, check for bad smells or discoloration.) Remember to label your bottle!

Congratulations. Now you have a homemade pumpkin spice syrup. The hard work is done. It’s time to make some drinks! 

Let’s Make Some Pumpkin Spice Cocktails 

Since I started out trying to make an otherwise basic Old Fashioned, my first thought was to make a fairly basic bourbon version of this drink. 

For the bourbon, you can use your house bourbon. (You need a house bourbon!

But if you’re buying or selecting something specifically for this recipe, let me recommend the inexpensive, easy-to-find Evan Williams black label. It’s not the most complex bottle out there, but just like the brandy I recommended for last year’s Thanksgiving Sour, it’s affordable, accessible, and reliable, with no difficult flavors or obvious flaws. And for something so seemingly basic, it makes a surprisingly excellent Old Fashioned. 

I garnished this with a strip of orange peel, twisted over the top of the drink with the peel facing down so as to express the oils onto the surface of the cocktail. Don’t underrate the importance of the garnish here. It’s not strictly essential — your drink won’t fail without it — but done right, it adds a lot of value beyond mere visual appeal. (I will have more to say about garnish in a future newsletter.) 

Basic Bourbon Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • ¼ ounce pumpkin spice syrup

  • 2 ounces bourbon, such as Evan Williams black label 

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. 

  2. Add ice, then stir until chilled. 

  3. Strain into a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. 

  4. Garnish with an orange peel, twisted over the top of the drink to express the oils. 

See? I told you it was good. You get pumpkin, spice (from both the syrup and the bitters), dark sugar, and bourbon in just the right balance. It’s not too sweet, not too spicy, and not too strong. And there’s a hint of fruit essence on top thanks to the orange peel. It’s a rich and satisfying Turkey Day sipper.

Even better? It is not the only drink you can make with the syrup. 

Since I had the syrup around, I also wanted to try something a little more complex, a little more involved — but that still evoked Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie. 

My first thought was to make a Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned with apple brandy. Good American apple brandy, like Laird’s (which is great in a Jack Rose), drinks a lot like a kind of apple whiskey, because that’s more or less what it is. 

But then I had another idea: What if I this syrup to make a dark rum Old Fashioned? After all, dark rum is often used in cold weather baked goods, and it shares a sensibility with molasses. It too feels like fall and Thanksgiving. 

And then I had a third idea: What if I combined the two?

In the end, that’s what I ended up doing. This drink uses a split base of Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy and one of my go-to bottles of tiki rum, El Dorado 8. (You can use El Dorado 5 or 12 if that’s what you have on hand. And this drink will work reasonably well with Laird’s Applejack, a lower-proof, less expensive apple brandy, if that’s all you can find.) 

Notice that, as always, the Old Fashioned template remains essentially the same, with a couple dashes of bitters, a bit of syrup, and two ounces of base spirit — even if, as in this case, the base spirit is split between multiple ingredients. 

I have said this over and over again, but that’s because it’s so important (and also because there are some new readers who may not have heard me bang this drum). If this newsletter can teach you just one thing, it’s that classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned aren't specific drink recipes! They are frameworks and formulas that allow for endless permutations. This Thanksgiving-friendly version is just another one of them. 

Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned (Apple Brandy/Rum Edition) 

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • ¼ ounce pumpkin spice syrup

  • 1 ounce Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy 

  • 1 ounce El Dorado 8 rum

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. 

  2. Add ice, then stir until chilled.

  3. Strain into a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. 

  4. Garnish with an orange peel, twisted over the top of the drink to express the oils. 

And guess what? There are probably more drinks to be made with this syrup. Try it with rye or (non-apple) brandy, or maybe even aquavit. I haven’t tried it myself, but perhaps there’s even a version that combines this with a bitter or herbal liqueur, for an even more complex array of flavors. 

So think of this as a project for the long weekend: Try this with other base spirits and, if you’re feeling ambitious, in other cocktail formats. If you find something particularly delicious, let everyone know in the comments. 

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Cocktail Library: The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Cocktail, by Robert Simonson. I’ve recommended this before, but it’s still the best book on the history and development of the drink, plus its climb to the top of the contemporary cocktail charts. Plus, there are a ton of recipes, and every single one I’ve tried has been excellent.

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