Old-school syrups are shaking up cocktails

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If a great cocktail is a product of its ingredients, here’s a question: why in the hell would anyone reach for a bottle of industrial-grade grenadine made of high-fructose corn syrup and red food dye no. 92? Or Orgeat syrup containing no discernible trace of anything even remotely connected to the nut family?

Paul G. Tuennerman, one of the founders of New Orleans’s celebrated Tales of the Cocktail festival, suggests that, for a long time, we didn’t know any better. Those who lived through the first golden age of the cocktail, at the beginning of last century, understood the integral role that syrups played in a drink, not only adding flavour, viscosity, and texture, but also giving bartenders the chance to put their own individual stamps on their creations. By the time the ’50s rolled in, though, North Americans were well on their way to being all about convenience. There was no sense boiling down pure pomegranate juice, sugar, and orange flower water to make a perfect El Presidente when it was easier to grab a bottle of Rose’s grenadine syrup.

“The food industry post–World War II was great,” the globetrotting Tuennerman says, caught between planes in Dallas, Texas. “It taught us all how to put food in a box and a can. Food in general, post–World War II, was about convenience. It wasn’t necessarily about the experience or the quality of the product. Betty Crocker was king. It was about mom coming home, or being around the house in a beautiful dress and a nice white apron and popping things in the microwave.”

That attitude would eventually spill into mixology. In a marked contrast to the craftsmanship that marked the early years of cocktail culture, bartenders—professional and amateur alike—slowly abandoned the idea of making their own syrups and mixers, turning instead to commercially manufactured products.

“If you think about places like T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s, and commercialized concepts like that—literally the drinks came out of a gun,” Tuennerman says. “It was about how fast you could make the drink, not about how good the drink was.”

Spurred in part by hot-ticket events like Tales of the Cocktail and mixology booms in hot spots like Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver, the past decade has seen an official return to the idea of using quality ingredients. Justin Tisdall, an award-winning bartender currently with Vancouver’s Chambar restaurant, is among the new breed doing things old-school by creating his own syrups.

“At Chambar I work really close with our pastry chef,” he says. “With certain syrups, we’ll combine shrubs with different vinegars and fruits, and use different kinds of sugars as sweeteners, always using fresh berries—nothing frozen or preserved.”

For those who don’t have a gold-star kitchen staff to consult, you can now find high-end mixers and syrups on the shelves of discerning food stores. Don’t have the time or the confidence to whip up a cucumber concoction for a summer gimlet? Or a little short on the cacti required to make that perfect agave syrup for a Tea and Sympathy? Let Giffard do the work for you. The French family-run company’s products are available in such locations as Nons on Granville Island (1669 Johnston Street) and Legacy Liquor Store (1633 Manitoba Street). Tisdall is a big fan of the brand, noting that cocktails sometimes call for syrups made from ingredients that can’t be sourced locally.

“There are certain products we don’t have access to,” he says. “Generally, if there’s something we can’t make, we’ll purchase Giffard. I’ve been through their distillery and seen how they make their syrups. I really respect their process. They have always supported the cocktail community and have tried to create really solid, fresh products using all-natural fruits and sweeteners.”

In addition to carrying Giffard products, Gourmet Warehouse (1340 East Hastings Street) offers a range of specialty syrups impressive enough to get the most dogmatic teetotaller scrambling for Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide. Falernum, a ginger-and-lime based concoction included in classic tiki drinks like Pearl Diver’s Punch, is normally harder to find in Vancouver than sunny days in June, but the East Van store stocks it. (And, better yet, the brand it carries is Fee Brothers, recommended by Polynesian-cocktail expert Jeff Berry in his indispensable tropical drink bible Sippin’ Safari.) Gourmet Warehouse also offers products from the Sonoma Syrup Co., the Bitter Truth, and Stirrings.

That such products are no longer impossible to source locally is a good sign that we’ve come a long way as a cocktail town. Dushan Zaric is the co-author of the book Speakeasy and co-owner of New York’s internationally recognized Employees Only. He notes that making top-shelf drinks at home has gotten a lot easier thanks to the availability of syrups and mixes created by people who care about doing things the old-school way.

Recognizing that Rose’s grenadine is no longer cutting it, Employees Only is now manufacturing its own boutique brand made of pure pomegranate juice, sugar, and Middle Eastern spices. And, Zaric suggests, the move towards high-end mixers is only getting going.

“Proper syrups give your cocktails a more dimensional flavour profile,” he says in a phone interview from New York. “They are a tool. If you are buying a product that’s just high-fructose corn syrup with Red Dye No. 2, you are missing out on that multidimensional aspect your cocktails could very well benefit from. Basically, you’re only getting sweetener and some colouring.

“And unfortunately,” he adds with a laugh, “in addition to tasting artificial, your drink is going to look a little funky.”


Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/mikeusinger.

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