The best cocktails reflect some level of culinary skill on the part of their creator—fresh ingredients, a balance of tastes, interesting flavor profiles.
For folks wanting to up their cocktail-making game, a good first step—after assembling the perfect home bar—is making your own ingredients. Syrups are a good start.
Basic simple syrup is one part water, one part sugar, dissolved over low heat, and simmered for 15 minutes or so. But it’s easy to go above and beyond a traditional simple syrup by adding fresh ingredients like basil, mint, or cloves. A few months ago, I wrote about Irving Gonzalez’s delicious morita chile syrup. Gonzalez is lead bartender at the Westgate Hotel’s Plaza Bar. His morita chile syrup is featured in The Coffee Cooler, which also includes Old Harbor’s Ampersand coffee liqueur and roasted pineapple.
It got me thinking about making my own syrups, so I’ve been experimenting lately. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Use fresh ingredients, if possible
A few months ago, I bought a bag of dried chile de arbol, figuring I could keep it in the pantry until I felt like using it. The resulting simple syrup—I used roughly a dozen chilies in 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water—wasn’t terrible, but it had this underlying flavor of Band-Aids. Perhaps I didn’t buy the right chilies, or perhaps fresh chilies would have been better. I asked Gonzalez what he recommended. “Use fresh chilies,” he said, “cut in half so the seeds can touch the liquid.” He told me I could get the same result with dried chilies—just don’t boil them (so, that’s where I went wrong). Make the syrup, pour it into a container and while the syrup’s still warm, drop in the dry chilies (crush ’em up first). Leave them in for 20 to 25 minutes and strain the syrup into a container.
(If you’re looking for morita chilies, they’re a bit elusive. Gonzalez gets his in Tijuana and makes batches of the syrup there so as not to get nabbed for bringing food with seeds across the border.)
Experiment with sugar
White sugar will give you a prettier-looking syrup, but raw sugar tastes better. The best is demerara, a raw brown sugar. (While you can probably find it cheaper, I bought a 1-pound bag at Whole Foods for about $5.80.) But why stop there? I made a batch of straight simple syrup using coconut sugar and tried it in an Old Fashioned. (I replaced the sugar cube with 1/4 ounce of the syrup.) The result was a very rich version of the classic cocktail, akin to an Old Fashioned made with brown-sugar cubes, but tastier.
What if I get it wrong?
Most recipes tell you to stir the sugar and water on low heat until the sugar melts, then add your flavoring ingredient and simmer the mixture for 15 to 20 minutes. If, after that, the flavor’s not as strong as you’d hoped for, it’s OK to add more of your ingredient and simmer for another 15 minutes or longer. You won’t hurt anything. I did this with a black peppercorn simple syrup. A recipe I’d found called for 20 toasted black peppercorns. I ended up increasing it to roughly 2 teaspoons (added to a syrup of 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water).
The black peppercorn syrup also worked really well in an Old Fashioned.
The syrup that turned out best incorporated fresh habanero chilies. I wanted a very spicy syrup, so I used five (halved) habaneros, 1/2 cup demerara sugar, and 1/2 cup water. A Greyhound is one of my go-to drinks, though, sometimes, the grapefruit juice is too tart. So, I used the habanero simple syrup to create a Greyhound variation with some heat and a little sweetness.
1 oz. vodka
1 oz. grapefruit juice
1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
1/4 oz. habanero simple syrup
Place all ingredients in a shaker without ice and shake for several seconds with a generous slice of grapefruit zest. Add ice and give it another shake. Strain into a coupe glass and add a fresh grapefruit zest.
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The Habanero Hound cocktail, made with a spicy habanero simple syrup. | Photo by Kelly Davis