This is part 9 of a series on Mixology Basics.
Simple syrup is a foundational ingredient of mixology, for the simple reason that it is much easier to incorporate sugar into a drink that has already been dissolved into water, than trying to stir granulated sugar into high proof liquid, in to which it does not wish to dissolve.
- It is important to make your simple syrups with the same ratio of sugar to water every time, in order to produce consistent output.
- Make your simple syrup in the microwave, it’s faster, cleaner, and it won’t hurt anything. Microwaves don’t magically ruin sugar water.
- When making a flavored syrup, the goal is to extract as much flavor from the infusing reagent as possible into the water. Some flavors are more water soluble, and some flavors are more alcohol soluble. For the latter, take a look at infusions, below.
- The easiest way to extract a flavor into a syrup is by simmering the thing you wish to extract in the syrup. Whatever that thing is, break it up into small pieces before simmering it, as a greater surface area will result in a faster and richer extraction.
By way of example:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Combine all in a pot on the stovetop and lightly crush the raspberries. Bring to a boil and then remove from the heat.
Once the syrup has cooled, strain through a fine-mesh strainer and optionally add .5 oz vodka, as a preservative.
And what, you are wondering, should I do with my raspberry syrup? The possibilities are endless, provided those possibilities include making things taste like raspberry. They range from the mundane:
1.5 oz raspberry syrup
8 oz soda water
to the classic:
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz lemon juice
.5 oz raspberry syrup
.5 of an egg white
By now it should not escape you that the clover club is a gin sour with raspberry syrup in lieu of simple, enriched with egg white. The Clover Club is a perennial favorite, and you will find that most any fruit-flavored syrup will complement this formulation.
The same technique that you use for raspberry syrup will work for most any berry or fruit; pineapple, blueberry, shnozberry, even peeled ginger; the sky’s the limit.
Another popular one is honey syrup, which is made by using heat to dissolve honey into light simple syrup.
1 cup water
3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
And what should you do with your honey syrup? Why, you should make the Bee’s Knees, which is almost the same as the Clover Club!
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz lemon juice
.5 oz honey
As you can see, mixology is inundated by the narcissism of small differences. But suppose you wanted to make, not a fruit syrup, but a spiced syrup? When it comes to spices, you can usually get away with the microwave, though there is nothing wrong with the stovetop. Cinnamon syrup is particularly versatile. Drop a few cinnamon sticks into your simple syrup recipe, and away you go.
Since we’re already cribbing from Jeffrey Morgenthaler, let’s take a moment to reflect on his grenadine recipe.
Grenadine is a magical syrup made from pomegranate juice, lightly seasoned with orange flower water. If you make grenadine this way, you will be happy, and your cocktails will sparkle.
The canonical grenadine cocktail, of course, is the Jack Rose:
1.5 oz Apple Jack (I prefer Calvados, personally)
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz grenadine
This is a light, fruit, summery kind of drink. Don’t take it too seriously, and if you like, bump up the grenadine to .75 oz. It’s great served up, and it’s great as a collins.
Oleo saccharum is latin for “oily sugar”, and it’s a special, decadent kind of syrup which is appropriate for festive occasions, or any time you feel like taking it to the next level. To make oleo saccharum, macerate citrus peels in sugar for half a day.
First, select one ore more appropriate citrus fruits. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are all good choices, though tangerines, quinces, and buddha’s hands are all possible. Lime tends to be a non-starter.
Remove as much peel from your citrus as possible, being careful not to get any pith. It’s possible to trim your peels after they are cut, and it is worth doing. Pith is bitter and will spoil your syrup.
In a large, covered bowl, combine the peels with at least a cup of sugar. This is not really exact, but I find that the peel of three oranges is suitable for one cup of sugar. Toss the peels in the sugar to coat, and don’t be afraid to give it a good muddling.
If you desire, fresh herbs or spices can also be added at this time.
Wait at least four hours, and notice how the sugar melts and pulls all of the oils out of the peels, becoming a rich, flavorful syrup.
Strain, and use it in your favorite sour. Why not try this?
1.5 oz reposado tequila
1 oz grapefruit oleo saccharum
.75 oz lime juice
4 oz soda water
Serve in a highball glass full of ice.
Infusing is a technique for rendering an aromatic ingredient’s flavor into a spirit. When it comes to infusions, the question you need to ask yourself is “why?”. Liquor is expensive, and for the home mixologist, it is easy to waste a lot of spirits.
There are two reasons one might use an infusion over a syrup. The first is that it is possible to pack extra flavors into a smaller space. You might want to add the flavor of a spice to a drink without the sugar that goes along with a syrup.
The caveat here, and also the second reason to favor an infusion, is that, for any particular reagent, a different subset of its flavors will be alcohol soluble vs. water soluble.
Alcohol infusions are great for capturing aromas, but they miss a certain slice of the flavor which is hard to describe. My heuristic is: for aromatic ingredients, capture them in an infusion; for ingredients with strong flavors but mild smells, capture them in a syrup or a juice.
Sometimes, to get the best of both worlds, it is advisable to make a liqueur.
The process for making a liqueur is simple:
- Make an infusion
- Make a syrup using the same flavors as the liqueur
- Combine them to your desired level of proof.
- Rest the liqueur for a few weeks to let it mellow and meld.
Ah, but how, exactly, does one make an infusion? If you are making a liqueur, it is advisable to use a very high proof spirit. A higher concentration of alcohol will produce a richer, fuller extraction. Cask strength bourbon, navy strength gin, or good old everclear are all suitable choices.
The biggest mistake that people make with infusions is infusing for too long. Often you will hear a friend brag of how they “infused for a month” or more. This is pure folly. Depending upon the reagent, some infusions are ready within a few hours, and most are ready within a few days, though some can take up to two weeks.
Over-infusing is a real thing. Have you ever steeped a tea bag for too long in hot water? The result is bitter, acrid, overly tannic tea. Infusions that run for too long can pick up off notes, so be mindful.
Infusion Time Cheat Sheet
- Chili peppers infuse the fastest. Depending on the type of pepper and the volume of spirit, one hour is easily too long. Most chili pepper infusions are far too hot, because the bars that use them over-infuse them.
- Tea takes about six hours.
- Fresh herbs like to go over night.
- Avoid mint infusions, as they end up tasting like toothpaste.
- Similarly, sage infusions get skunky.
- Spices take about three days, though some can be faster.
- Most fruits and vegetables take a week or two.
Rate of Extraction vs. Surface Area
Of course, as with any kind of steeping process, the rate of extraction is a function of surface area. Ground up spices will infuse just as fast as you can stir them in and strain them out, but ground spices are also hard to strain out cleanly, unless you grind them fresh, will have already dried out too much to convey good flavor.
A bunch of thin peeled ginger slices will infuse much faster than a single large chunk. Save yourself the time and prefer many small pieces over a few large ones.
I’ll make a special note about coffee, since any coffee nerd will tell you, a good extraction is all about the size of the grind. Let’s say you drop whole, unground coffee beans into vodka. It will take about three weeks to reach the place you want, though agitating the mixture might speed it up a bit.
On the other hand, a medium, pour-over style grind will be ready over night, just like a cold brew.
Let’s finish off this topic with an oddball. Did you know, most of the flavor in meat comes from the fat? And further, the flavors of fats are partly alcohol soluble? Yes, it’s true, you can infuse animal fats into liquor. This is not a method for the faint of heart.
To fat wash a spirit, pour a quarter cup of warm (not hot) liquid fat into about a cup of liquor and give it a good shake. It will separate in pretty short order, but that won’t hurt anything. If you want a deeper infusion, shake it longer, although in my experience it reaches a saturation point pretty quickly.
To remove the fat, leave the infusion in the freezer over night. All of the fat will solidify at the top in a frozen disk. Remove this, and then strain out any (still-frozen) stray particles using a coffee filter. I have found that liquors treated this way develop a bit of an oily mouthfeel.
1.5 oz bacon fat-washed bourbon
.5 oz maple syrup
2 dash angostura bitters
garnish with an orange peel and a strip of candied bacon.
embrace the void
This drink is more novel than delicious.