Episode 053 - Homemade Syrups
What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another Episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast!
Our topic is homemade syrups, which can play a really fun and important role in your home bartending repertoir. They're great for harnessing the flavors of whatever season you're in, and they're actually relatively easy to make.
In this episode, we cover:
- The role of sweetness in cocktails
- How to choose the right syrup sweetener for you
- Tools and instructions for making cocktail syrups
- How to preserve your syrups from spoiling
- Syrup Pro-tips and recipes
- And much, much more
Featured Cocktail: The Mint Julep
This week’s featured cocktail is the mint julep, which is a really terrific warm weather cocktail. To start, we’re going to compare 2 recipes to get a sense of this drink.
According to David Wondrich, writing for Esquire.com. You’ll need:
- 1 tsp superfine sugar
- 3 oz bourbon
- 5-6 mint leaves
Whereas Alton Brown recommends:
- 1.5 tsp superfine sugar
- 2.5 oz bourbon
- 10 mint leaves
- A splash of seltzer water
You can already begin to see the variations here.
Both recipes recommend muddling the sugar and mint leaves in the bottom of the glass you’ll serve the drink in. But they diverge after that. Alton Brown says to simply add a splash of seltzer water, then fill the glass with ice, add the bourbon, and top it off with another seltzer splash. Whereas David Wondrich says to pack the glass with finely cracked ice, add the bourbon, and stir briskly until the outside of the glass frosts. As always, you want to keep a mint sprig aside for a garnish with this drink and give it a few smacks on the cutting board before you slip it into the cup.
The real question here, when comparing these recipes seems to be whether you want that sugar to be well incorporated into the drink from the beginning, or whether you want it to slowly get sweeter as the ice melts.
Homemade Mint Syrup
A third option for the mint julep is to make yourself a mint-infused simple syrup and just add a half to ¾ oz of that to your julep in place of the fresh mint and sugar. This is a particularly good option if you’re entertaining and you want to keep the process simple for a large group of people, or even batch these in advance.
- First, make a 1:1 simple syrup, then and add a healthy handful of fresh mint.
- Let that infuse over the heat for about 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally and not allowing it to boil.
- Then skim out the mint and allow the syrup to cool.
- Substitute 1/2 to 3/4 oz of your mint syrup for the sugar and mint prescribed in the recipe, but don't forget to set aside some fresh mint sprigs for garnishes!
Sweetness in Cocktails
Sweetness is good. Sweetness means calories and energy. At least that’s what our bodies are programmed to think, and that’s why we still innately crave sweet things, even though most of us aren’t running around at a caloric deficit.
Sweetness also helps to balance or mellow out other tastes that can be aversive in large doses, like sourness or bitterness. We don’t walk around sucking on gentian or lemons, but just the thought of a nice negroni or a whiskey sour can get your mouth watering.
Bartenders have been taking advantage of sweetness from the very dawn of the cocktail - and in fact, long before that. So as long as you’re taking care to meticulously combine all the other tastes and flavors in your cocktail, it makes sense that we pause on sweetness and give it its due attention.
Choosing Your Sweetener
The first thing you have to do when you want to make a homemade cocktail syrup is to choose your sweetener, and this is actually a lot more complicated than it might sound. This is mostly because there's so many options on the market.
If you’re looking at sugar in particular - essentially anything derived from the sugar cane plant - really the two variables are how processed or refined this product is, as well as the size of the granules you’re dealing with.
On the processed end of the spectrum, you’ve got your standard, granulated baking or table sugar, alongside similar products like “superfine” sugar. This is exactly what it sounds like, and the reason it’s recommended for juelps is because when you’re adding straight sugar to your cocktails (rather than a syrup), small granules dissolve better than large ones.
Raw Cane Sugars
In the middle, you’ve got less processed sugars like Florida Crystals, Sugar in the Raw, and a lot of the other raw cane sugars out there. We really like these for making my syrups at home.
Molasses & Panela
And finally at the far end of the spectrum, you’ve got stuff like molasses and more exotic sugar products like panela. Molasses is actually a bi-product of the sugar making process, and that’s why it’s got that dark, slightly burnt taste. And then you’ve panela, which goes by a ton of different names depending what country you’re in (including jaggery, piloncillo, and rapadura) is basically a hardened hunk of completely unrefined cane sugar.
Honey is a popular one, and the cool thing about hones is all the amazing variety out there on the market. There's clover honey, orange blossom honey, buckwheat honey, tupelo honey, and many more besides. And of course, it makes sense that the honey is going to take on flavor characteristics of the flowers involved in its creation - almost like terroir for bees.
So, if you’re the kind of person who really likes to tinker with flavor, you might consider what happens when you use different types of honey for your syrup bases.
Finally you’ve got your agave nectar, which is a product that you can find at most natural grocery stores. A lot of people on vegan diets will use it as an alternative to honey - or just because they like the flavor.
Even though both honey and agave nectar both come in somewhat liquid forms, it still helps to make syrups out of them for the purposes of incorporating them into your cocktails more effectively. Since most cocktails are chilled, honey and agave nectar respond to that cold temperature by reverting to a more solid state, which makes the mixing process messier and less productive.
Maple syrup, the processed sap of the maple trree, has a few grades based on color and flavor, and the factor that really dictates both is when the maple sap was harvested. The earlier it’s harvested, the lighter the color and the subtler the flavor, and the later it’s harvested, up until right before the maple trees bud in the spring, the darker and more robust the flavor.
An obvious connection to make here is that if you’re a bourbon fan, you can totally tailor your maple syrup to complement your whiskey in an old fashioned. If you’ve got a really strong, high rye bourbon, you might want to go for a dark amber that can stand up to it. But if you’re working with a wheated bourbon, maybe light or medium amber is a more appropriate choice.
Once you’ve selected your sweetener, it’s time to look at the tools and methods you’ll use to create your cocktail syrup.
Tools and Ingredients
Obviously you’ll need a stove or burner, a pot or saucepan of some sort, and some good, clean water. And as you’re envisioning this process in your head, let’s imagine you’re using a nice granulated raw cane sugar.
The Science of Dissolution
If you remember back to your high school chemistry class, you may remember the words “solute” and “solvent” used when describing the process of one substance dissolving into another. That’s what happens when you make a syrup. The sweetener is the solute - the thing being dissolved - and the water is the solvent - the thing doing the dissolving.
There’s a couple things you can do to water to help it dissolve things faster. One is to add heat to the equation, and the other is to mechanically agitate the water by, say, stirring it.
This pretty much describes what you need to do to make a syrup.
Usually, you want to add the water to the pot and let it heat up before adding the sugar, which is then going to cool the overall temperature of the solution as soon as you add it. And then you should stir the contents of the pot with a spoon or a whisk until all the sweetener is dissolved in the water.
Popular Syrup Ratios
Now, one important detail that we’ve glossed over so far is precisely how much sugar and how much water to use when making a cocktail syrup. If you’ve ever heard the term “simple” syrup, this refers to an equal ratio of sugar and water. So if you take out your pyrex measuring cup and fill it with two cups of water, that’s exactly how much sugar you’d want to add if you’re aiming for a simple syrup.
The other popular type of syrup is a rich simple syrup, which is a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water - so if you use 2 cups of water, you’re going to need 4 cups of sugar. Rich simple syrup takes a bit more heat and a bit more stirring to make because as the sugar gets liquefied, it kind of binds to the water molecules, leaving leaving fewer of those water molecules available to help dissolve the remaining sugar. In addition, as you might imagine, rich simple syrup packs a more potent dose of sweetness than an equal amount of simple syrup.
So, to review, if you want to make a simple syrup or a rich simple syrup, you’ve got to assemble your tools and ingredients - sugar, water, a pot, and a stirring utensil - heat up the sugar and water, and stir until dissolved. Pretty simple.
Adding Flavor to Your Syrup
But let’s say you don’t want to stop at “simple.” What if you want to make a flavored cocktail syrup?
The cool thing about heat, water, and sometimes even sugar is that they’re great at stripping and retaining flavor from other things. So fruits, herbs, spices, and even vegetables in some cases are all on the table when it comes to flavored syrups.
With fruits and herbs, it’s best to use fresh when they’re available, but with spices, obviously you’re going to be adding those to your syrup in dried form most of the time.
And really adding a flavor to your syrup only adds two steps to the process. Once your sugar is dissolved, you add your flavoring ingredient or ingredients and stir those for a few minutes to let the flavor infuse. And finally, once you’re satisfied with the flavor, you just take a sieve and strain them back out. Simple as that.
How Much "Flavor" to Add
At this point, many of you are wondering exactly how much of your flavor ingredient to add when you’re making a syrup. And fortunately (or unfortunately) depending on how reliant you are on recipes in the kitchen, there’s really no set rules. If you’re making a strawberry syrup, for example, and you want it to be REALLY powerful, add a lot of strawberries relative to how much syrup you’re making.
One word of caution would be to heed this simple culinary principle: When it comes to seasonings, you can always add more, but you can’t take any away. So especially with powerful spices like cinnamon or pepper it might be best to initially add less than you think you might need, and then up the dosage if you want to dial up the potency. That’s how you avoid having to throw out or dilute a batch of syrup that’s too strong.
It’s also a good idea to keep track of how much you add of a certain flavoring ingredient. That way, if you make a syrup, and people really enjoy it, you can reproduce it identically in the future, and you can even share the recipe with friends.
Preserving Your Syrup
Once you’ve made your cocktail syrup, you need to figure out a way to preserve it if you’re not going to use it right away. And there are a number of ways you can approach this.
First off, let’s take a look at the two biggest culprits that cause syrups to go bad: bacteria and mold.
These are things that are floating around or growing all over the place, especially in our kitchens and refrigerators. So the first step in preserving your syrup actually happens before you make it - and that is to thoroughly cleanse your kitchen workspace before you produce. This means you want to wipe down all surfaces with an antibacterial cleanser, and certainly be sure to follow other best-practices like washing your hands and using clean pots and utensils.
Syrup Temperature Regulation
On the stove, one thing you can do to prevent bacteria from forming is to bring your syrup to a light boil. We’re not talking pasta water boil here. Just bring it up to a simmer where you’ve got little bubbles rising from the bottom of the pot and steam escaping from the surface. This indicates that you’re in the neighborhood of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the boiling point of water.
The Case for Cooling
Chefs and caterers, generally want to chill down their pre-prepped food as quickly as possible once it’s cooked. And the thinking behind this is that bacteria and mold tend grow best in neutral temperatures, so the more quickly you bring that food from hot to cold, the smaller the window will be for bad stuff to get in there and grow.
Technically, this is also true for syrups, except, unless you’re going to use it all right away, you’re probably going to be storing it in the refrigerator in a clean, sealed container. So if you transfer your syrup to a carefully sterilized bottle or mason jar right away and seal the top, you don’t really need to worry about refrigerating until the first time you open it.
However, if you frequently make batched cocktails for events or social gatherings, you might need to chill down your syrup so you can batch your cocktail without warming up the other ingredients too much.
Bar Hack: The Double Chiller
One method we devised for really quickly chilling down syrup is something we call a “double cooler" because it works roughly the same way a double boiler works on the stove. If you’re melting chocolate, for example, you put your chocolate in a small saucepan, and you place that saucepan inside a slightly larger saucepan filled with boiling water, and this ensures that you’re not going to burn the chocolate.
The double cooler works the same way, and the real benefit is that you cool your liquid without diluting it. Use one of those large stainless steel mixing bowls that you can pick up on Amazon or at Ikea for cheap. Fill the bowl about halfway with cold water and large ice cubes, and then place your saucepan filled with syrup directly inside the bowl, making sure the water and ice are in contact with the bottom and sides of the pot.
Using this method, you can easily chill down a liter or two of syrup in about half an hour. It’s one of our favorite bar hacks, and now, it’s all yours.
There are a couple of things you can do to avoid bacteria and mold.
One is to make the pH (of level of acidity) in your syrup inhospitable to the little microbes that spoil it. For bacteria, this means lowering the pH by adding something like citric acid, which is basically just powdered lemon juice. So if you’ve got some citrus lying around, that can help, but you can also pick up citric acid for cheap on amazon, and believe me, a little goes a long way.
For mold, it gets a bit trickier because preventing that is more of a chemical thing, not just a pH thing. So if you really want to nerd out, check out mold inhibitors like potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate, both of which can be found on the ingredient lists of many canned or bottled products.
Finally, the richness or thickness of your syrup can play a role in avoiding spoilage. Formally, this property is measured using something called a BRIX score, which is based on the specific gravity of your liquid. And in normal language, basically what happens is the thicker your syrup is, the fewer water molecules are available to host microbes because they’re all stuck to sugar molecules.
In this respect rich simple syrups are better than regular simple syrups, so if you’re planning on storing your syrup in the fridge and using it over the course of a month or so, maybe consider using a rich simple syrup to avoid spoilage.
Measuring Specific Gravity
If you want to get a bit scientific with this, you can actually calculate the specific gravity of your syrup if you have a little digital kitchen scale. All you do is get your pyrex measuring cup, fill it with 2 cups or 500ml of water. Weigh that. Dump it out. And then fill it with an equal volume of syrup and weigh that. The syrup is going to be heavier than the water, logically, and to arrive at the specific gravity of your syrup, all you do is divide the weight of the syrup by the weight of the water. And you’re going to come out with some decimal that’s between one and two.
The Vodka Misconception
Before we move on to a few recipes and pro-tips for at home syruping, there's one common misconception we’d like to clear up, and that is the use of vodka to prevent bacteria growth in syrups. Technically if you add a tablespoon of ethyl alcohol on top of your syrup, yes, that will float on top and prevent any bacteria from getting to your syrup. But so does a properly sterilized lid or cap. So there’s really no reason to use the vodka float method.
And if you’re thinking: well, I’ll just mix the vodka into the syrup instead of floating it, then yeah, that might help, but you’d need to add so much alcohol to your syrup to prevent bacteria growth that, by time you’re done, you’ve got more of a cordial or liqueur, and then you’ll have more alcohol in your cocktails than perhaps you were planning for. So forget the vodka, and focus on a clean workspace, a properly thickened syrup, and maybe some acidification if you want to preserve your syrups in a home setting.
Buy Liquid Intelligence
First off, I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold if this episode has piqued your interest in syrups. There’s a really great 5-page spread on sweetness in cocktails with a lot of useful tips. So, even though it’s a bit of a pricey book, it’s literally indispensable if you’re looking to really take your home cocktail game to the next level.
Measure by Weight, Rather than Volume
When you’re comparing equal volumes of sugar and water, they’re not really equal - they’re pretty close, but not quite the same. And that’s because the densities are different, so if this bothers you, and you feel a bit betrayed by our earlier recommendations, the solution is to measure out your sugar and your water by weight in order to truly achieve your 1:1 or 2:1 ratios. And the same goes for honey, or agave as well, both of which have even higher densities than granulated sugar.
For most people, this isn’t a big deal because it’s hard for your taste buds to identify even fairly large changes in sugar concentration beyond a certain point. But hey, if you’re one of those folks who just wants to be consistent and 100% accurate, we get it. Go pick a digital kitchen scale.
Recipes to Try at Home
One is for an ingredient called orgeat, which is one of the most interesting and important ingredients in many of the most popular tiki drinks. Orgeat is an almond-based syrup infused with orange blossom water to give it a really complex, rich flavor. There is some straining and blending involved, so I’d recommend picking up a handheld immersion blender and a nut milk bag before you dive into this particular project.
The cool thing about rose is that if you’re careful with it, it doesn’t steal the show. It’s one of those amazing back-up flavors that really ties together the cocktail.
To make a rose syrup, you’ll need:
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1-1.5 cups culinary grade dried rose petals (1.5 or 2 oz by weight)
The one disadvantage here with using dried rose petals is that they’ll absorb some of the syrup, so you’ll see a little bit of a reduced yield, but if you need a certain amount, just anticipate that and make a little extra to account for the absorption.
Flavor Ideas for Your Next Syrup Project
- You know what? Most berries
- Black Pepper
- Jalapenos and other fragrant peppers
- Coriander and/or cilantro
- And finally, avoid things that smell or taste like feet.