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Cocktails

Bring Back the Syllabub

May 09, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Jennifer Chase

Cocktails

Bring Back the Syllabub

May 09, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Jennifer Chase

Washington, D.C.’s Fountain Inn reimagines the 500-year-old “whipt” wine cocktail that drinks like a Ramos.

The Syllabub has been around for 500 years, yet it flies beneath the radar of most modern cocktail practitioners. Unlike other popular drinks from the early modern period, such as punch and wassail, the Syllabub seems to have made its exit before the American cocktail made its debut—as a drink, that is. Much like its more famous cousin, posset, the Syllabub spent centuries as a beverage before landing solidly in dessert territory, where it has lived ever since. At least until its unlikely revival in a new (old) tavern in Washington, D.C.

The formula for the Syllabub has evolved quite a bit in its half-millennium, as has the spelling of its name (Solybub, Sullybub, Sillabub…). Broadly defined, the drink version usually featured a base of white wine or hard cider, frothed or “whipt” with cream (or milk) and sugar. Egg white was also a common addition. Alternative or additional wines and spirits included sherry, Madeira, ale, brandy and red wine. The Syllabub was traditionally flavored with all manner of spices, herbs and citrus.

Some of the drink’s earliest recipes could pass as bizarre variations on the Ramos Fizz. One such “receipt” from the Elizabethan period calls for a base of white wine, rose water, egg white, sugar, cream and cinnamon shaken to a froth and served immediately. As the 17th century dawned, Syllabub recipes began to occupy a liminal space between drink and food. These recipes were designed to create a mixture that would separate into two distinct layers—liquid on the bottom and a frothy, creamy topping—shown off by decorative glassware. The following century brought the demise of the Syllabub as a drink and saw it rise in popularity, instead, as a fancy dessert. Not only did the composition itself become more solid, but the cream and sugar were significantly increased, and the booze was downgraded to a mere flavor enhancer. A recipe for Everlasting Syllabub appeared in the seminal mid-18th century cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse.

Despite its obscurity, the Syllabub has found at least one home in the American cocktail scene, and a fitting one at that. At the Fountain Inn in Washington, D.C., 17th- and 18th-century drinks are given new life—an homage to the legacy of the original Fountain Inn, also known as Suter’s Tavern, which was an important site of political dialogue during the early republic. Based on a recipe from the late 1600s, the drink also serves as a showpiece for the modern Fountain Inn’s ethos, with its synthesis of the bar’s low-waste program, modern bar techniques, and early-American aesthetic. To the delight of bar director Dakota Hines, it’s become an unlikely crowd favorite. So much so that the Syllabub has landed a permanent spot on the menu year round, along with a Fish House Punch and house Old-Fashioned.  According to Hines, “the Syllabub is something that we are incredibly proud of developing because, though it’s something that people don’t necessarily gravitate to, once they have it in front of them, they’re just super happy.”

Recipe

Fountain Inn’s Syllabub

A 500-year-old frothy wine cocktail reimagined for the 21st century.

The base of Hines’ Syllabub pays homage to popular tavern drinks of the 18th century, which often featured ale or cider fortified with rum or brandy, flavored with sugar, spices and, sometimes, citrus. The Fountain Inn’s spec combines a German wheat ale with Cognac, caramelized “gold syrup,” and the bar’s patented “forever lemon,” a pasteurized, fortified citrus product that cuts down on waste while avoiding the use of synthetic acids. The Syllabub base mixture is force-carbonated for optimal effervescence. “I feel strongly that the thing that makes beer the most pleasant [in cocktails] is that it’s carbonated,” says Hines. 

After the carbonated base layer is poured into an oversized coupe, it’s topped with a white wine foam. This top layer of the Syllabub hews more closely to early recipes for the drink, minus the cream. It consists of dry, acidic white wine, Cocchi Americano, lemon juice, simple syrup and a touch of Averna combined with a foaming agent and albumin powder, all aerated using an iSi cream whipper. (The latter two ingredients help cut down on waste and keep the topping stable.) Finally, a period-appropriate garnish of fresh nutmeg provides the finishing touch.

Though the Syllabub is unlikely to make an appearance at most modern bars, it’s found a perfect home in the Fountain Inn, where it keeps company with Rattle Skulls and Madeira-tinged Old-Fashioneds. Hines has become the unofficial steward of the Syllabub, ushering it into its sixth century, all the while delighting patrons with every serving. “I had a customer ask, ‘What do I say when I want to order this at another bar?’” Hines recalls. “And I was like, ‘You can’t, I’m sorry.’”

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