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Hot mulled apple cider with cinnamon sticks, cloves and anise

For most families, the Thanksgiving menu is set in stone, with idiosyncratic food traditions that are practically sacred. The complicated part of planning has always been deciding what to drink, something people seem to start worrying about weeks in advance.

For most families, the Thanksgiving menu is set in stone, with idiosyncratic food traditions that are practically sacred.

The complicated part of planning has always been deciding what to drink, something people seem to start worrying about weeks in advance. I’m a staunch believer in drinking American on this U.S. holiday, and wine has always been my go-to choice, with bottles of the latest craft beers thrown in for those who shun the grape.

This year, though, I’m taking the American theme even farther and embracing cider, which dates back to the Mayflower, which carried a cider press and apple seeds to the New World. New York’s first apple tree was planted by its last Dutch administrator, Peter Stuyvesant, at the corner of what is now Third Avenue and 13th Street, a fact I learned from the informative drink menu at Terroir Tribeca, which has a superb cider selection.

Happily, the cider revival that started a decade or so ago (sales are up 500% since 2011) means there are more stellar, sophisticated examples than ever. They come from more than 1,000 cideries in just about every state, according to Michelle McGrath, executive director of the U.S. Cider Association, so the drink really does reflect our country’s diversity.

True cider isn’t that sweet, pasteurized stuff that comes in jugs sold in supermarket vegetable aisles. The real stuff has alcohol. Real cider is made from fermented fruit juice, just as wine is, and has similar dimensions of acidity, tannin, sweetness, and body. It comes in a wide variety of styles, from sparkling to sweet. As with grapes, apple varieties number in the thousands, each offering different taste nuances.

And cider fulfills my main Thanksgiving drink requirement, big time: versatility. Easygoing, crisp, fruity, with little tannin or oak, it complements everything from the complex savory flavors and rich textures of stuffing to the tart-sweet bite of cranberry sauce, earthy yams, salty gravy, and, of course, the turkey. Cider also has enough refreshing acidity to perk up palates through an entire day of cooking, greeting, eating, and watching football. Many are effervescent, which adds to the atmosphere of celebration.

Then there’s the added attraction of lower alcohol. Most ciders, whether sparkling or still, are 6% to 8% alcohol by volume, about half that of wine. (That’s even more important in a high-politics year, when you’re trying to avoid the kind of arguments that arise after everyone has downed too much booze.)

Oh, and did I mention that cider, unlike beer, is gluten-free?

As great as they are for Thanksgiving, the difficulty in picking ciders is navigating the flavor-style spectrum, which ranges from bone-dry to super sweet and from funky rustic to so elegant it could almost be mistaken for white wine.

And as with wine, a cider’s taste depends heavily on the apple varieties used. The most interesting ones are made by small farms from blends of historic varieties classified as bittersweet or bitter-sharp, meaning they’re unpleasant to eat, with names you’ve probably never heard of, such as Esopus Spitzenburg.

Modern cider makers are also experimenting with single varietal cuvees, fermenting with wild yeasts, barrel aging, and wine-cider blends, and adding hops and other flavors such as maple syrup, mint, and even jalapeños. Some are jumping on the rosé bandwagon, by using red-fleshed apples.

When it comes to price, don’t expect these artisanal ciders to be cheap. A 500 ml bottle of Aaron Burr’s Malus Baccata will set you back $130, because it’s rare. Maker Andy Brennan spent several years foraging wild Siberian Crab apples, and it takes 10,000 of these pea-sized fruits to make a single bottle. Fortunately, most artisan ciders cost less than $25 for a 500 ml bottle.

Angry Orchard, produced by the Boston Beer Co., makers of the ubiquitous Sam Adams beer and Truly hard seltzer, is one of the most widely available big brands. The company’s ciders aren’t for artisanal purists, but their annual Walden Hollow release may surprise you.

A few thoughts on serving: 1) Don’t chill ciders too much, or you’ll mask their aromas and flavors; 2) Pour into tulip-shaped wine glasses for the best effect. Here are some of the best bottles to look out for.

Nine great American ciders:

- Aaron Burr Appinette (750 ml, $27). Wine-ciders are very traditional and food-friendly. This crowd pleaser blends foraged apples and traminette grapes. It’s sharp, dry, and loaded with personality and earthy-fruity flavors, and it has a gentle sparkle like a pét-nat.

- Brooklyn Cider House Raw (750 ml, $10). From Brooklyn’s first cidery, this is an American cider inspired by those from Spain’s Basque country. It’s pale and light-ideal as an aperitif-with crisp green apple and citrus flavors and zingy acidity.

- Drew Family Brut Cider Sur le Mer (750 ml, $20). The Drew winery in Mendocino, California, is known for its award-winning pinot noirs, but the organic estate also has an orchard of 60-year-old heirloom apple trees. This fresh, salty, sparkling cider is made according to the traditional Champagne method.

- 2015/2016 Eve’s Cidery Autumn’s Gold Sparkling (750 ml, $18; magnums, $30). This frothy classic from New York’s Finger Lakes was made by one of the leaders of the cider revival. Broad, rich, and moderately tart, it has smoky, fruity flavors and a long finish. (Also, look for their gulp-able still cider, 2018 Albee Hill.)

- Eden Heirloom Blend Ice Cider (375 ml, $35). It takes eight pounds of apples to make one 375 ml bottle of this sweet, amber-colored Vermont elixir with honeyed flavors of caramel and dried apricots. It pairs well with pumpkin and apple pie. Also, look for Eden’s off-dry Imperial 11 degree Rosé.

- Farnum Hill Kingston Black Reserve Extra Dry Still Cider (750 ml, $23). This cider is made from a single varietal, Kingston Black. It’s a bitter-sharp apple, which translates into a cider with high tannin and acid levels. New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill makes it into a serious, earthy example, with a rich texture and aromas that smell like fall.

- 2018 Floral Terranes Surburban Moraines Still (500 ml, $22). This two-year-old Long Island, N.Y., cidery produces several ciders from apples that are mostly foraged from backyards, parks, and abandoned orchards. Easy drinking and wine-like, it has bright, clear aromas, subtle fruit, and the acidity to perk up taste buds throughout dinner.

- 2014 Redbyrd Orchard Cider Celeste Sur Lie (750 ml, $27). Super dry, brioche-scented, and made by the same method as Champagne, this barrel-fermented cider comes from a biodynamic cidery in the Finger Lakes. A creamy-rich texture helps it stand up to rich food.

- 2018 Tilted Shed Ciderworks Graviva Semidry Cider (750 ml, $15). Sonoma is a hotbed of cider producers bent on saving the local heirloom Gravenstein apple from the threat of more pinot vines. This cider blends 50% Gravensteins with such other bittersweet apples as Muscat de Bernay. Expect savory flavors of damp earth and ripe apple, with enough richness for roast turkey.

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