Not everyone is a fantastic cook. Ever burned a bowl of cereal? If you answered in the affirmative, then you’ll want to make sure you have adult supervision before touching the stove.
But if you can get permission, then the mystical world of flavored simple syrups awaits. Spirituous cocktails (those composed mostly or entirely of alcohol as opposed to fruit juices and other mixers) are often so rooted in tradition that monkeying with the recipes sends most bartenders batty.
At home, on your own, the world is your oyster. Or pearl. Or pearl onion, perhaps. Anyway, making your own basic simple syrup really is just that: simple. The standard recipe calls for equal parts sugar to water. Put it in a saucepan, heat it to a low simmer until all the sugar is dissolved, and store it in a tightly-sealed container for probably a lot longer than it will take you to use it up.
That is, as they say, just the beginning. Once you’ve mastered the arcane and complex art of heating things over flame, it’s essentially just switching out one ingredient for another, or adding something new to create a new flavor. These few tips ought to get your motor runnin’. •
There is really nothing wrong with using plain old granulated sugar. If refined sugar is something you’d prefer to avoid, or if you’re a fancier sort, there are a number of other options that provide a richer, deeper product that cocktail enthusiasts love.
What you’ll find commonly in cocktail syrup is demerara, a grainy cane sugar that has more of a molasses-type flavor than normal table sugar. Similar and practically just as universal is turbinado, known popularly ‘round these parts as Sugar in the Raw (which is not to say that’s its the only iteration, just an oft-used brand).
Using these darker, less-processed sugars will improve the quality of your syrup in both taste and texture. Want to go beyond? Muscovado is an even darker, stickier form of un-spun sugar, dried over long periods of time under low heat, the kind of stuff you might use in ginger snaps. Piloncillo is the Mexican form of whole cane sugar. It has a smokier flavor, popping up in things like mole sauces and Mexican desserts, and is probably only to be gotten from a specialty market.
Whatever you choose to sweeten will affect the flavor of your syrup and therefore the cocktail. Something as exotic as piloncillo often gets paired up with normal granulated sugar to soften the blow, but anyone who’s made it to this point should feel free to experiment at will. Here’s a thought: piloncillo syrup, reposado tequila, fresh grapefruit juice. Go nuts.
A syrup on its own, regardless of the jumped-up sweetener used, does have limitations. Introduce spices into the mix, and it’s a whole different party. For the purposes of this article, the term “spice” is going to be used more liberally – that is, you’re going to “spice” things up. Perhaps with actual spices. Or perhaps with citrus, fruit, or herbs.
First, the actual spices. Coriander, cardamom, and caraway seem to pop up all the time and are popular players in the business of bitters (not pictured – sorry, too complicated). That combination is one of a practically infinite number of flavor profiles that can send a syrup into a completely new dimension: Star anise, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, Tellicherry peppercorns.
Ginger is also easy to work with and pair with different spirits and other syrup ingredients. Chili peppers and orange rind, perhaps. The process doesn’t change much; you still add sugar and water to a pan and heat it up, then you simply add the additional flavoring components and cook their essence in. The only difference is how much junk you’re going to have to strain out of the final product.
Herbs can work fabulously well also. Split a stalk of lemongrass and steep it right along with the syrup for a subtle citrus tinge, or dump a handful of expressed basil leaves in and let the magic happen.
Come along. Don’t be scared. You’ve come so far already. What’s a little vinegar between friends? Craft cocktail vinegars are finding prevalence all over our fair city, and shrubs have caught on, too. The real insiders would probably snort and say they’ve been around forever. You’ve never heard of their favorite band, either. Don’t worry about it.
Here’s the blueprint of a shrub: fruit, sugar, vinegar. Equal parts by volume. Combine the first two and slather the former liberally with the latter. Cover the bowl (you were doing this in a bowl, of course), and leave it in the refrigerator to macerate naturally. The sugar will break the fruit’s cellular structure down and release all the lovely juices while you’re off slam dancing or whatever.
Strain the syrup and any leftover sugar into a new vessel, add your vinegar (probably red wine or apple cider, but maybe balsamic if you’re adventurous), and agitate it until you’ve reached homogeneity: no lumps, no clumps, no grit.
Your brand new shrub buddy can go into any number of cocktails (how about a peach shrub, some French brandy, a little mint simple syrup, and a champagne float?) – you’ll just have to tinker around with the flavors until you find something you really like. In the end, you get to drink the failures, and you’ll probably still spend less than you would on three quality cocktails at your neighborhood bespokery.