Thursday, December 15, 2011


Especially with the last couple of recipes, I hope that I've impressed on you that this is intended to be more than a rote list of cocktails.  After all, there are many books that fill that niche far more effectively than I could ever hope to.  My intent here is to include recipes for other goodies that require more patience and practice than skill: punches, cordials, bitters, and so on.  For now, let's start with something more basic: syrups.  Syrups are an integral part of many older cocktails and a solid bartender's tool, so I like to keep a couple on hand.  Simple syrup, true to its name, is as easy as it gets to make at home, and flavoring is a breeze.

A simple syrup is nothing more than one part sugar and one part water, heated until the sugar dissolves.  Easy, right?  It appears as a sweetener in many early cocktail recipes because at the time, the word cocktail referred specifically to a base liquor with the addition of sugar, water, and bitters.  Working bartenders soon realized that simple syrup easily replaced two of those ingredients readily.  In later years when cocktail referred to a much broader range of drinks, they applied the potential for adding new flavors.  Raspberry and pineapple syrups both appear in a number of recipes from the years before Prohibition, and both are very simple to make, requiring only a bit of patience.

Honestly, syrups are amenable to endless variation, and since I know of only two syrups that can readily be purchased (and not even good ones at that) you'll likely have to make them on your own.  Rather than giving an exact recipe, here's my standard procedure for just about any syrup.

First, start with 1 1/2 parts sugar to 1 part water.  Quantity is unimportant; you can make a half-cup or a gallon, so long as you start out with this basic ratio.  Yes, I know I said that simple syrup is composed of equal parts water and sugar, but there's good reason for this choice.  Before Prohibition, most spirits were bottled at whatever proof they dripped out of the still at, commonly around 100 (50% alcohol by volume) or higher.  Nowadays, producers typically blend the finished spirit with some water to arrive at a final 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).  If you're staying true to classic cocktail recipes, you don't need the extra water; in fact, you don't need it if you're making up a new drink either.  Some cocktail writers (such as the esteemed David Wondrich) go with a "rich syrup" with twice as much sugar as water, but I think that's just a bit much.  For one, boiling the syrup will drive off some water anyway; for two, if there are any tiny particles floating around in there, excess sugar can recrystalize around them and leave you with big clumps (basically, wet rock candy).

Add the water and sugar to a pot and apply medium heat, stirring with a whisk or spoon until the sugar is fully dissolved.  Let the mixture come to a simmer (i.e. bubbles just barely breaking the surface) and turn off the heat.  Let the syrup cool until it's warm (i.e. until you can touch the side of the pot without burning yourself) and pour into whatever container you want.  Remember that the final volume of this solution will be roughly the volume of water plus half the volume of sugar; thus, 1 1/2 cups of sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water will make about 1 3/4 cups of syrup.  Easy, right?

For a flavored syrup, pour this while still warm over your ingredient of choice.  The list of available options is endless:

  • fresh raspberries
  • pineapple
  • tart apples (such as Granny Smith)
  • roasted squash (as we've covered in previous recipes)
  • cucumber

Etcetera, etcetera.  After pouring on the syrup, let this stand for about 8 hours, or approximately overnight.  Whether it's finished at that point depends on many factors, so let taste be your guide.  If it's not strong enough, let it stand for another 4 hours, then another 4, and so on.

I can guarantee that the very best tool for this process is a French-style coffee press.  Place the ingredient in the pitcher, pour the syrup over it, and then place the top on with the plunger out.  In the morning you can simply push down and pour off the now-cooled syrup into your container of choice.  If you notice some lingering cloudiness or any small particles in the result, do yourself a favor and run it through a coffee filter (preferably when the syrup is still slightly warm).  This will take some time, but will prevent your syrup from re-crystalizing and forming big, nasty clumps.

The leftovers are usually good for a quick-infused cordial; you can pour in a few ounces of vodka (or brandy, or whatever you've got) to cover and leave it for another 24 hours.  Again, the coffee press is your friend.  This is a strictly optional step, but it seems a shame to let valuable flavors go to waste.  Depending on the specific ingredient, there may be other recycling methods available.  Thinly sliced coins of ginger, for example, make an excellent garnish if candied by tossing in extra sugar and laying them out on a cooling rack to dry.

Now, there are a handful of exceptions to the process above.  Fresh herbs, for instance, work very nicely in syrups (thyme syrup is perhaps my all-time favorite) but get bitter if steeped too long, and they really do need some heat to extract their essence.  These, I simmer (not boil) in the syrup for 20-30 minutes, tasting occasionally (remembering that it's very hot, and that the flavor will sweeten as it cools).  Strain this into a heatproof vessel and let cool.

I'll also blatantly contradict myself by stating that you may want to vary the starting ratio of sugar to water depending on how much water your flavoring agent will contribute.  Pineapple, for instance, is very juicy, and will dilute your syrup as it steeps.  In order to arrive at the target ratio of 3:2, you'll need to reduce the water slightly to compensate.  Likewise, if you're making an herb syrup you may want to add slightly more water to account for evaporation during that half-hour simmer.

Another consideration is what kind of sugar you'll use, as not all are created equally.  The blindingly white, fine variety most commonly found in today's supermarkets is fine, if a bit vanilla: it will contribute sweetness, and not much else.  Natural sugars (turbinado is easy to find) tend to have a more robust flavor which is what you want with, say, pineapple or squash syrups.  But I wouldn't use it with subtle flavors like cucumber, melon, or pear; in these cases the white stuff is perfect because it won't walk over the flavoring agent.  As always, let taste and experience be your guides.

Once you've got the final syrup, bottle and refrigerate it.  If kept tightly sealed this should keep for about a month.  If you're looking for longer storage, take a tip from David Wondrich as I do and spike the syrup with a dash of 151-proof spirits (vodka is preferable because it's neutral, but rum will work too).

Well, now that we've covered that, I won't feel as obligated to write out a full recipe whenever I reference a home-made sweetener.  Yeah, I didn't think you'd mind.

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