With cocktails, even some of the simplest flavor combinations can be combined for a whole new effect. If you’re willing to put in the time and risk making a mess in the kitchen, you can create some syrups that will add pizzazz to your next signature cocktail.
Like with most cocktail-related things, there are quite a few different ways to make syrups. However, many flavor and aromatic compounds are delicate and will break apart when exposed to heat. Others aren’t water soluble, which means that they won’t be transferred if the ingredient is put in water for the syrup.
Luckily, there are a few ways to get around these difficulties. One such method is to combine your flavorful ingredients (like citrus zest, ginger root or thin cucumber slices) and sugar in a sealable plastic bag. Let it rest for several hours, and let the ingredients liquefy. The resulting liquid is called an oleo sacchrum, and was traditionally used as the base for punch. It can be quite thick, so to thin it out, add a bit of water to the bag and squeeze until dissolved.
It would appear that, in most of these cases, osmosis—the tendency of a fluid to pass from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration—is the science at play (it’s a bit more complicated with the citrus oils, but it follows a similar process). By adding sugar and sealing the ingredients together, sugar draws out the liquid and taste compounds. If contained in a sealed area, all of the delicious aromatics and flavor molecules are preserved.
This approach is especially good for ingredients like ginger. Uncooked ginger contains gingerol, a spicy taste molecule. If the root is exposed to heat, gingerol degrades into zingerone—not so spicy—and shogaol, which gives ginger tea its recognizable burn.
Unfortunately, this approach to syrups does have its downside. Though it doesn’t take much prep time, it’s not as shelf-stable as a syrup that’s been heated. To prevent spoilage, refrigerate after completing the syrup.
The more traditional way of making simple syrup is to heat water and sugar in a pan. Boiling the mixture breaks the sucrose (sugar) down into fructose and glucose, two simple sugar molecules. The resulting syrup is slightly sweeter than what you may be used to, so adjust your recipes as needed.
However, you can also make syrup by combining a 1:1 ratio of sugar and other liquid in a sterilized glass container and shaking it periodically. For fruit juices and similar liquids, this approach doesn’t destroy the aromatics or flavor compounds. But like the oleo sacchrum method, cold batching doesn’t kill off bacteria or other nastiness that might be lurking inside your container. As a result, your syrup may not last as long.
Hit The Lab
If you’ve ever bought grocery store grenadine, you’ve probably been profoundly disappointed to find that it was just red sugar water. But traditionally, it was pomegranate-flavored, adding a subtle tartness and deep flavor to the drink that complimented its sweetness.
The availability of Pom and other pomegranate juices makes this syrup easy to make. Some recipes suggest nuking the juice until only about half is left. Other, simpler recipes call for equal parts Pom and sugar and 1 tsp of vodka. To combine, measure all three ingredients into a sterilized glass jar. Shake until no sugar remains on the bottom. Set on a countertop out of direct sunlight, and shake every 45 minutes or so until no sugar settles to the bottom.
One of my favorite cocktails to make with grenadine is the Ward Eight. Essentially, this cocktail is just a whiskey sour made with grenadine instead of simple syrup, but the substitution adds a pleasant earthiness that the original lacks.
As one of the only classic Boston cocktails, its devotees are smitten with their own recipes. In fact, during the 1940s a New York Sun writer put out a call for readers to submit their recipes for the cocktail. He received more than 500 replies. So, if this recipe doesn’t pique your fancy, tweak it until it does.
1 tsp - .75 oz grenadine (to taste)
1/2 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz orange juice
2 oz whiskey (rye or bourbon will work)
Lemon wheel for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Add ice and shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds or until cooled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with the lemon wheel.