The Case for Cordials

Why the world’s top bars are resurrecting these DIY combinations of sugar, acid and flavoring.

When Max Venning started pre-batching cocktails for Three Sheets, the London bar and café he co-owns with his brother, Noel, it was about getting drinks to customers fast—specifically, within two minutes of ordering, even during the busiest part of the night. Cordials turned out to be integral to that hefty endeavor.

A mix of sugar, water, acid and flavoring—a cross between a vinegar-based shrub and a flavored syrup—cordials are having a moment at a variety of bars including New York’s Nitecap and the newly-opened Stay Gold, as well as Los Angeles’ Normandie Club. These hard-working ingredients perform double duty as both flavoring agents and a means to expedite service and minimize waste.

They also can add complexity to drinks: Three Sheets uses cordials to add acidity to drinks, often in lieu of citrus. “Lemon and lime are great,” Venning says, “but often they are used to balance flavor, and people ignore that they’ve tasted lemon or lime.” A cordial adds acid without adding citrus flavor—unless, of course, that’s the intention, as it is in Venning’s citrus cordial.

A number of these cordials are outlined in Batched & Bottled, a new book from the Venning brothers, which debuted earlier this month and shines a spotlight the role of cordials in pre-batched cocktails at Three Sheets. On the menu, these cordial-based drinks vary based on seasonal produce: jasmine or elderflower in the spring; fermented strawberry, rhubarb or peach in the summer; and Bramley apple or cranberry in the fall. Citric acid powder often supplies the balancing acidity.

While they have applications in shaken up drinks, like the Lemon & Cardamom Gimlet, Venning’s preferred use for cordials is in tall, fizzy long drinks. The cordials are prepped ahead of time. When ordered, bartenders pour an ounce or so in a Collins glass over ice, plus a couple of ounces of spirit and top it up with soda water. Done.

One example, the Rhubarb & Grape cocktail, calls on a pre-bottled mixture of fermented rhubarb cordial and Chilean pisco (the “grape” component in the drink), which gets poured over ice and topped with soda water. In Batched & Bottled, the Vennings do not even supply specific quantities, instructing users to simply “pour a large measure of cocktail in and top with soda”—a reflection of the breeziness of the technique. While cordials require some up-front time and effort to make, when it’s time to serve a drink, they can certainly speed up service without sacrificing complexity—both in a bar or an at-home setting.

“We see drinks as punctuation to the evening,” Venning explains. “We see it as something that allows conversation to flow, not a showstopper.”

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