Foragers & Herbalists: Holiday Cheer at year End: Cocktails with Highbush Cranberries

December 31, 2022

By Merrie Witkin

WVLT Land Steward, Cara Gentry’s Highbush Cranberry bushes. C. Cara Gentry

As the year end approached, I was stymied as to what to write about once my garden died back, until Cara Gentry, WLVT’s Coordinator of Land Stewardship and intrepid forager and cook, gifted me with a small bag of Highbush Cranberries, the last of the year’s harvest from her backyard bushes. Cara, a trained geologist and passionate naturalist, has a wealth of knowledge that she willingly shares. She has lately been experimenting with Highbush cranberries, making jams including a cranberry habanero version that she generously shared with me.

Cara’s Cranberry Habanero jam. C. Merrie Witkin

Highbush cranberries are not true cranberries; rather they are the drupe fruits of a native viburnum species—Viburnum trilobum, the American Cranberry Bush Viburnum.[1]  It is a tall shrub with leaves that are 2.5-5 inches long and shaped like maple leaves, with three lobes toothed on the edges.  In the spring the shrub features white flower clusters like many viburnums, and drupes that develop in the summer, turning bright red in the fall. While identification can be difficult as the leaves and fruits may be confused with the maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) or the guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), many local nurseries sell the native trilobum plants, so you may find that they are growing in your back yard. The ultimate identifier is the berries’ taste—V. Trilobum while sour, lacks the astringency or funk of the others. Now while that may not sound like an advertisement for the fruits, think of true cranberries or rhubarb, both of which are very sour in their natural state and require the addition of sugar to bring out their unique flavor. The berries can be harvested in the fall once they turn bright red, but also can be picked in the winter after a hard frost.  The shrub’s height makes it easy to pick the fruits, but please leave some to over winter for the birds.

The washed berries ready for making into juice. C. Merrie Witkin

It is said that the berries can be used in any way that true cranberries can be used.  Since Cara’s gift was not enough for me to make jam, I thought it would be fun to try them in a simple syrup, and then see how that worked in holiday cocktails. To do so I relied on the method to make Highbush cranberry juice explained by Chef Alan Bergo on his blog, the Forager/Chef.[2]  Unlike real cranberries, Highbush cranberries have a flat single seed which needs to be removed first.  Chef Bergo provides two methods to extract the berries’ juice, a cold press (which can be a bit messy) and a heated method.  For my experiments I chose the latter method:

Highbush Cranberry Juice (Hot Method)

  1. After rinsing the berries, combine them with water until it barely comes up to the top of the berries.
  2. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then turn the heat down to low, mash the berries gently, not vigorously, since extra agitation and contact with the seed will lend bitter notes to your juice.
  3. Cover and cook for 20 minutes on the lowest heat possible, then strain, chill and refrigerate or freeze until needed. Raw juice will last for a few days in the fridge.

The finished cranberry juice. C. Merrie Witkin

Making the Simple Syrup

 The taste of the unadulterated juice was a clean very sour berry flavor, with a hint of funk, which led me to think that I might want make it into a rich simple syrup where the ratio of sugar to juice, by volume, was closer to 2 (parts sugar) to 1 (part juice) than a straight 1 to 1 ratio, but that is a matter of taste and depends on how you like your cocktails.  To make the syrup measure the volume of your juice (I had about 2/3 cup) and add the same volume of sugar to a saucepan and bring the pot to a slow boil and let it cook until the sugars dissolves.  Taste (carefully!) to see if the syrup is sweet enough for your palate.  If it still seems too sour, you can add additional sugar starting with ½ of the initial volume of sugar and up to a total of twice the volume of juice and continue cooking until the sugar is fully dissolved. (So for a simple syrup I would add 2/3 cup sugar to my juice and end up with 1 and 1/3 cup of finished syrup.  For a full rich simple syrup, I would add a total of 1 and 1/3 cups sugar to the 2/3 cup of juice and end up with about 2 cups of syrup.) Then turn off the heat and let the syrup cool and, when cool, store it in a glass jar or bottle in the fridge.

Highbush Cranberry Mixology

The Highbush cranberry champagne cocktail and ingredients. C. Merrie Witkin

 Truth be told, I am not a dedicated mixologist, preferring my drinks on the uncomplicated side, and mostly wine or cider-based. But the beautiful red syrup calls out for mixing with wine, champagne, vodka or dry cider during the holiday season for a pop of color and flavor.  A traditional Kir (which originated in Burgundy and was named after the Mayor of Dijon and resistance hero who popularized the drink) is made with a measure of black currant liqueur (crème de cassis) and topped up with white wine.  Substituting a measure of finished Highbush cranberry syrup for the black currant liqueur and topping it up with a dry white Sauvignon blanc or Chablis (at a 1/5 or 1/6 ratio, depending on your taste) yields a very nice wine cocktail with a lower alcohol content than one made with the liqueur. A Kir Breton is traditionally made with Breton cider and as adapted using Highbush cranberry syrup, it works beautifully with our local ciders such as Kettleborough Cider House’s signature dry cider.

Finally, as the holidays were approaching, I tried it with a dry champagne—both in a cranberry Kir Royal, and in a champagne cocktail.  Since real cranberries mix well with oranges and orange juice/liqueurs, I thought I would try the syrup with blood orange bitters in an adaptation of the classic champagne cocktail.  No need for a sugar cube, since the syrup is sweet.  Instead mix a few drops of blood orange bitters with 1.5 tsps of Highbush cranberry syrup in a champagne glass and top up the glass with a nice dry chilled champagne or Prosecco.  There is no need for the expensive bottles, as you are looking for a dry light flavor that makes a refreshing mix with the sweet syrup. And BTW—if you don’t have any berries but have a friend who gifts you Highbush cranberry jam, you can try a small spoonful of the jam in place of the rich simple syrup for a cocktail with a more intense burst of berry flavor.  Either way, these make a festive way to celebrate the holidays and ring in the new year, especially when the weather outside is frightful! Happy New Year to you all!



[1] Or, as the more recent nomenclature lists it, Viburnum oculus L. var. americanum, to distinguish it as a subspecies of the very similar European species V. opulus.  While the berries of both are edible and naturally sour, the fruits of the European species—which have been planted and spread throughout their growing range in North America— have a noticeable bitterness and funk which makes them unpleasant (but not dangerous) to eat.

[1] At



Dirt, Michael A., Viburnums- Flowering shrubs for Every Season, Timber Press 2007.

Meredith, Leda, Northeast Foraging, Timber Press 2014.