It makes sense, really. A veteran bartender attuned to fruit and spice flavors and how they work together with alcohol might know his way around a spiked cranberry sauce.

That sauce has become a fixture at John Aquino’s annual Thanksgiving Day feast. His version is based on a recipe that came from one cook sharing with another a few years back, reflecting the spirit of the holiday itself.

Aquino, who works at Coast in downtown Charleston, is big on Thanksgiving and being able to do something nice, as he says, “for all my friends who have nowhere to go.” He calls it the “Straggler’s Thanksgiving Extravaganza.”

Many of those friends have jobs in the food and beverage industry and must stay in town over the holiday to work. “So I’ll have everybody over,” typically 30 to 50 people, Aquino says. It’s a day-long potluck that starts about noon and goes past midnight.

People bring covered dishes, along with their kids and pets, for the giant get-together. Aquino himself cooks two 25-pound turkeys (one fried, one roasted) and makes his trademark oyster stuffing, the cranberry sauce and — oh my — a truffled mac ‘n’ cheese with Gruyere cheese, portobello mushrooms and truffle oil, of course.

“Everybody comes and eats their faces off and everybody gets a to-go bag,” he says. Musician friends jam into the night, and if someone can’t go home, they stay over.

Aquino spends about $600 on the shindig. “It’s my gift to give back to my friends.”

As for the sauce, “A friend of a friend came over and tasted my oyster stuffing and we exchanged recipes,” Aquino says. He made a few personal tweaks and is proud of the results.

“I’ve done cranberry sauce many different ways, but this one is amazing,” he said in an email.

John’s Cranberry Sauce


11/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

11/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 bottle red zinfandel wine

21/4 cups sugar

1/2 (15-ounce) box white raisins


3 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger

Zest of 1 orange

11/2 teaspoons curry powder

2 large pinches Chinese 5 spice powder

Pinch nutmeg

Salt and white pepper


Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat; add cranberries and fresh ginger and cook just until berries begin to burst. Add wine and sugar; boil until mixture reduces to about 21/2 cups (around 18-20 minutes). Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, cover raisins with brandy in a small pot. Heat until hot, remove from burner and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain.

Add raisins and remaining ingredients to cranberries. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Let stand until it comes to room temperature. Cover and chill.

Bonus tip from Aquino: “Keep all strained liquids. After straining raisins from brandy, retain liquid. Strain cranberries through a semi-fine strainer and retain liquid; when cool, pour into ice cube trays, cover with parchment paper then plastic wrap, and freeze (if inclined, add brandy to cranberry liquid before freezing).

“Remember most if not all alcohol will be burnt off during cooking, leaving the liquids inert. I use the cranberry cubes in my iced tea or lemonade in the summer, or as an addition to my hot tea in winter. You can create a sauce for chicken or pork by heating in a saute pan, adding chicken or veggie stock, reducing, then add a little butter at the end for a nice sheen. Or even use as a base for a barbecue sauce. Try cooking the cubes down to a syrup consistency and pouring over pancakes, waffles, or even ice cream.

“As a mixologist, I take bourbon or an amber rum, hot apple cider, and 2 cranberry cubes (melted) in a footed mug (a glass coffee mug; or any regular sized coffee cup will do), and top with some whipped cream drizzled with a little maple syrup.”