The Great Pumpkin finds its way back to fame and into our cocktails
Ah, mighty pumpkin, how you have fallen.
For more than 7,500 years you fed the Americas, sometimes being the sole barrier between survival and starvation. You were grown in every field, served at every banquet and, like corn, became quite the novelty to European explorers first crossing the Atlantic to settle the New World. So valued was your contribution to mankind, a Massachusetts Pilgrim, writing in the 1630s, devoted a poem in your honor.
“Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.”
OK, great verse wasn’t a Pilgrim forte. Still, it goes to show how in less than four short centuries, the mighty pumpkin has come down to little more than an object hacked, carved and set on fire as a porch decoration for Halloween, or, for the ones that avoided that fate, a pie filling at Thanksgiving. By the 19th century, Europe used it for animal feed, and in the United States, one writer stated that anyone who could afford not to eat pumpkin did not eat pumpkin. It had become soup kitchen fare.
Such a woeful fall from grace is sad indeed, leading one to despair and, yes, drink. And a drink it is.
Who would have guessed the poor pumpkin would suddenly, in the 21st century, find itself getting a new lease by turning to the bottle?
For the past half dozen or so years, mixologists have discovered that the flavor of pumpkin in all sorts of drinks was not only quite tasty, but that it enhanced the existing subtleties of gins, vodkas and even whiskeys, tequilas and rums.
Last year, the addition of pumpkin flavors in cocktails across the country was up by almost 40 percent compared with the year before, observers who track this stuff report. From martinis to punches, the pumpkin is in bars and pubs across the country, and everyone knows its name.
Pumpkin in alcohol is not altogether new. Those wily, pious Pilgrims were known to ferment persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin chunks to make a pretty potent brew. Written some decades after the first, another ditty by a Pilgrim poet said:
“If Barley be wanting to make into Malt
We must be contented and think it no Fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips
Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.”
It’s no wonder the hottest party of 1621 was the Pilgrim Pumpkin Ball, also known as Thanksgiving. Colonial tavern tenders were known to keep baskets of dried pumpkin strips around to slip into the rum they served. That was less because the pumpkin made the drink so good as it was that the rum was so bad. In the late 1700s, a Virginia planter came up with a potent pumpkin-based alcohol, and he turned a profit selling it. It went by the name Pumikin.
Today’s pumpkin cocktails are almost certainly seasonal, namely because so many recipes suggest fresh pumpkin, but so are the liquors that contain the pumpkin flavor. They rise in popularity around Halloween and then peak at Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you find a pumpkin liqueur or pumpkin-flavored spirit, best buy when available. Canned pumpkin purée can be found year-round.
The limited season, however, is behind the biggest trend now for pumpkin cocktails — pumpkin-infused alcohols. These can be done at home with a little patience and any favorite spirit can do. Bars and markets across Texas are offering pumpkin infused rums, bourbons, vodkas and tequila.
At Halls Liquor, 2121 45th St. in Galveston, there’s quite a patch of pumpkin selections, including beers, liqueurs and even vodka.
“It is very seasonal, but when they arrive, they are very popular,” said owner Bharat Patel, better known to everyone as Mr. B. By early October, he begins stocking up on pumpkin beers, including some exclusive brews made by area brewers Karbach and Saint Arnold.
Liqueurs and vodkas are on the shelves longer.
“Really, people start asking about them in October and November, and I see a lot more making cocktails with them now,” Patel said.
Among the most requested are the Kahlua Pumpkin Spice Liqueur, an often-called-for ingredient in the pumpkin cocktail recipe book, and Fulton’s Harvest Pumpkin Pie Liqueur, an annual release.
For vodka lovers, the most popular at Halls are Pinnacle Pumpkin Pie Vodka and Burnett’s Pumpkin Spice.
For many, the mention of a pumpkin cocktail brings a vision of pumpkin pie on the rocks — a sugar-loaded sweet concoction of creamy liqueur and nutmeg sprinkles over a whipped cream topping. In fact, there actually is a surprisingly delicious cocktail called the Chocolate Pumpkin Gingerbread Martini that fits the sugar heaven image, but erase that temptation.
Think now of something more Gulf Coast appropriate, such as a Pumpkin Mojito. This refreshingly cold beverage is made with a tablespoon of pumpkin purée (canned pumpkin purée works fine), muddled mint leaves, aged rum, a little brown sugar, lime juice and club soda.
In Miami, one bartender has created It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, using fresh pumpkin, a few spices and an unbashful addition of good tequila. A New York bar did another take with tequila, and now serves the Habanero and Pumpkin Frozen Margarita.
If it’s a Thanksgiving drink on the agenda, a little turkey and pumpkin in a glass will be hard to beat. That’s Wild Turkey bourbon, of course, with a couple of tablespoons of pumpkin butter, lemon juice, fresh sage leaves and a few dashes of bitters.
So, maybe this grand American gourd will find its way back to prominence. While there will always be those who insist on their pies and carved masterpieces, this new trend may take the fallen pumpkin and raise the bar on its importance.
Adapted from a recipe on popsugar.com/food
Makes one serving
1 dozen fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/2 ounces dark rum
1 tablespoon pumpkin purée (not pie filling)
Juice of ½ lime
2 ounces of club soda
Place the mint leaves and brown sugar in a cocktail shaker and muddle. Add the rum, pumpkin purée and lime juice, then top with ice. Shake until well chilled, then strain into a cocktail glass. Top with club soda. Garnish with a sprig of mint.