You don't need fancy containers to store your simple syrup (left) and flavored syrup, such as Liberty Bar's hoja santa syrup (right).
The bartender at the opening of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference handed me an icy mixed drink and began to rattle off the ingredients. "Drambuie, pisco, lemon juice, Earl Grey simple syrup ..."
Wait a minute there, I said. Earl Grey simple syrup. What's that? Sweat tea?
Sort of, she laughed. Then she explained that it was a simple syrup flavored with Earl Grey tea, known for its bergamot flavor. She didn't have an exact recipe for how to make this at home, since her container appeared to contain more than three gallons.
But she did suggest trying 4 or 5 tea bags added to your basic recipe for syrup.
Simple syrup is a liquid sweetener in which the sugar has been dissolved already, so you don't get that gritty sediment at the bottom of your glass that happens when you add sugar to cold tea. The recipe is simplicity itself: Dissolve 1 cup of sugar in 1 cup of water over heat until the sugar crystals disappear. Cool. And use in your favorite cocktails.
With the Earl Grey, you'd steep those tea bags in simmering water for a few minutes before stirring in the sugar.
Of course, syrups have been a part of cocktail culture for a long time, from adding a splash of grenadine to finish off a Tequila Sunrise to stirring some ginger syrup (see recipe below) into a Moscow Mule for an extra kick. Back home in Kentucky, we add mint to simple syrup before making mint juleps for the derby.
Make your own flavored syrups for cocktails.
More and more syrups are being incorporated into the world of handcrafted cocktails these days as a means of adding dimension as well as balance to drinks. And as with any cooking, the limits of what syrups you create are strictly those of your imagination.
They are also cost-effective, says Jeret Peña, owner of the Brooklynite, 516 Brooklyn Ave.
"Flavored simple syrups are the best way to add flavor to a drink without spending an arm and a leg at a liquor store," he says. "Why buy a framboise when you can buy organic raspberries and muddle them into a bowl filled with simple syrup? Leave for a few days and — boom! — you have a traditional raspberry syrup."
Not every flavor is so easy and not every ingredient is readily available, Peña says, citing several obscure items, such as "an elderflower, hops or certain spices."
Why use a simple syrup instead of infusing an alcohol?
"Here is another way to look at infusions," Peña says "I have a peanut-washed bourbon on menu. I can't imagine it working with gin or tequila, so there is no reason to replicate it in anything other than the bourbon. The opposite to this theory is the use of certain items that can easily be used with multiple items. In this case, I love making hopped syrups because it can work with a multitude of spirits, such as gin, tequila and even Irish whiskey."
The market is full of a number of infused vodkas, but you won't find that otherwise flavorless liquor getting too much respect from makers of hand-crafted cocktails.
As Peña says, "Vodka seems to be far removed from my craft, and the thought of infusing it seems even further. I always tell people if they want a flavored vodka, try gin."
Liberty Bar's Santa Pepin (left) and Ruby Menta.
A friend of mine, Glenn Drown, has made a blackberry syrup for cocktails using a recipe that's almost the same as making jelly, only you don't cook it long enough to let it jell. He likes it mixed with vodka and lemon juice. He also said he'd like to use a bit of syrup to help rim glasses with either sugar or salt for cocktails.
To get started, think of flavors that you like in your cocktails.
Want something tart? Try a pomegranate syrup, which can be made several ways. One involves dissolving pomegranate molasses in a little boiling water, not to dilute the flavor but to dissolve any sugar crystals and to make it more liquid and easier to mix in a cocktail. Another involves using pomegranate juice, sugar and boiling water. These variations are different from many commercial grenadines, which can be made from any number of dark fruits nowadays, including black currants, or have unwelcome ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup added. So, if you're a stickler for handcrafted cocktails, make your own pomegranate syrup the next time you make a pair of Fresh Pears (see recipe below) at home.
Almond syrup involves water, sugar and almond extract. A coconut variation would be made with, you guessed it, coconut extract. I could see myself going through my spice cabinet and hauling out everything from peppermint extract to jackfruit, and playing around with the resulting syrups. They don't have to be sweet or fruit flavors either. Think of syrups infused with vanilla, basil or saffron.
Or think of the hoja santa syrup that Liberty Bar, 1111 S. Alamo St., uses in its Santa Pepin cocktail. "We dry fresh hoja santa leaves from the bush by the elevator," says Katie McKee. "It is my understanding that dried hoja santa can be found, but we like using the fresh."
If you make your own berry syrups, especially with the likes of seedy blackberries or raspberries, make sure you double strain the final product. You don't want your guests to be picking their teeth because of your cocktail.
Of course, there's chocolate syrup out there, which is used for Black Russians among other sweet favorites. If you are buying a prefab syrup, such as Hershey's, read the label first and give it a taste. Be alert for chemical finishes and off-putting additives or flavor flaws that could be magnified when shaken into your cocktail.
Or, if you prefer, you could make your own chocolate syrup (see recipe below). It not only tastes better and the quality is not only higher, whether you're using it in a cocktail or on ice cream (or both), it's also less expensive. And that's something not to overlooked when you consider the cost of a good bottle of tequila or bourbon these days.
Liberty Bar photos by Phillip Kent.
Liberty Bar's Ruby Menta
Liberty Bar's Ruby Menta
1 1/4 ounces Ilegal Mezcal Jovan (skanky mezcal will not do)
1 ounce fresh squeezed Texas Ruby Red grapefruit juice
Juice from 1/2 fresh squeezed lime
1/4 ounce simple syrup
Fresh mint leaves (3 big or 5 little)
Muddle mezcal, grapefruit juice, lime juice, syrup and mint well. Shake, strain and pour over ice or serve up in a martini glass.
Garnish with a fresh lime twist.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Nate Cassie/Liberty Bar
Liberty Bar's Santa Pepin
1 cup dry hoja santa leaves, crumbled
1 quart simple syrup
Ancho chile powder
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon
3 slices English cucumber
2 ounces Don Julio Blanco tequila
Cucumber slice, for garnish
Place the crumbled dry hoja santa leaves and the simple syrup in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, allow to simmer for 5-10 minutes then remove from heat. Let it cool, then fine strain the mixture. It can be used immediately or refrigerated for later use.
Rim glass with ancho chile powder. Again, this specific touch makes a huge difference
Combine lemon juice, English cucumber slices, 1 ounce of hoja santa simple syrup and ice into a shaker cup. Muddle. Add Don Julio Blanco tequila, shake well and strain into ancho chile-rimmed glass. Garnish with a cucumber slice.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Katie McKee/Liberty Bar
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup cocoa powder
1 dash salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the water, sugar, cocoa powder and salt together in a saucepan over low heat; whisk constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to simmer. Remove from heat and stir the vanilla into the sauce. Serve warm or cover and refrigerate until serving.
Makes 1 pint.
1 cup unpeeled, washed fresh ginger, roughly chopped
1 cups sugar
3 cups water
Process ginger chunks in a food processor or blender until finely chopped. Place in a large stock pot. Add sugar and water to the pot and stir. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook for one hour until a rich syrup is created. Strain the syrup twice through cheese cloth or a sieve into a large jar or bottle. Refrigerate.
Makes about 4 pints.
Adapted from Betty Fraser and Denise DeCarlo, Grub, Hollywood, Calif./Imbibe
1 medium Bosc pear
2 tablespoons citrus-infused vodka
1 tablespoon pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoons pomegranate syrup
3 tablespoons hard apple cider
Shred pear; place pulp on several layers of cheesecloth. Gather edge of cheesecloth together; squeeze over a glass measuring cup to yield 1/3 cup juice. Discard solids. Combine pear juice, vodka, pomegranate juice, lime juice, and promegranate syrup in a martini shaker with ice; shake. Strain about 3 tablespoons vodka mixture into each of 2 martini glasses. Top each serving with 1 1/2 tablespoons hard apple cider. Garnish with pear slices.
Makes 2 cocktails.
Adapted from Yummly.com