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Make Your Simple Syrup Smart

Eliminating water from the equation can amplify just about any cocktail.

In the bartender’s arsenal, syrups are an irreplaceable tool, a necessary element to the balance of just about every cocktail. Though syrups typically comprise a sweetener—sugar, honey or agave—mixed with water, bartender Shawn Soole adheres to a different mantra: “Hell no, H2O.”

Instead of using water, Soole turns to other liquids—brewed tea or coffee, juice, wine, even flat cola—to thin honey into a cocktail-ready syrup with plenty of flavor. “It’s endless,” he says of the range of possibilities. “Like infinity.”

While flavored syrups are nothing new in the cocktail world, the technique typically involves steeping ingredients, such as spices or fruit, into an existing syrup, then straining out the solids. Blending a sweetener with a flavored liquid, however, can add greater complexity, color and texture in fewer steps.

At Otium in Los Angeles, bar director Chris Amirault has termed this technique “blended syrup,” owing to his use of an immersion blender to incorporate the sweetener and flavored liquid in question. (He notes that a whisk or a spoon plus “a little bit of elbow grease” will accomplish the job just the same.)

For the bar’s namesake Otium cocktail, a Japanese-inspired Gold Rush–style drink, Amirault blends honey with yuzu juice. The end result is more sweet-tart than outright sweet; Amirault notes that where a citrus peel infusion might yield gentle nuance, adding fresh juice in lieu of water ramps up intensity. “It has a really beautiful color, and the flavor of the yuzu [makes the honey syrup] bright, acidic and slightly floral,” he explains.

For honey syrups in particular, tea is often the go-to mixer, since tea leaves and other botanicals naturally pair well with honey’s floral characteristics. At Pagliacci’s, an Italian restaurant in Victoria, British Columbia, Soole uses a house blend of green and black tea. He then cuts the brewed tea with an equal amount of honey before adding a pinch of salt. “I believe a syrup should add more than sweetness,” he says.

This very thinking is prompting bartenders to develop other recipes that work-double time. Lynnette Marrero, for example, makes a hibiscus tea honey to add floral notes and a rosy tinge to her rum-based Makalapa cocktail, while a coconut-green tea-honey syrup adds depth and tropical aroma to the Eastman, a vodka-and-pineapple drink.

The technique allows bartenders to easily mix and match sweetening agents and liquids in almost infinite combinations—often landing in experimental territory. By way of example, Amirault rattles off a laundry list of potential ways to modify Otium’s ginger syrup, typically made with three parts ginger juice, two parts sugar and one part water. Subbing in pomegranate or cranberry juice in place of water would yield the equivalent of a gingery grenadine. Carrot juice is also a possibility: “We’ve done carrot-ginger honey, not only for the flavor, but the color is really stark and beautiful as well,” he says.

But carrot-ginger syrup is just the tip of the iceberg for Amirault. He’s experimented with a spicy-smoky agave-poblano syrup, developed to flavor a mezcal-spiked Margarita variation. The goal was to mimic the effect of roasted agave just before it’s distilled to make mezcal. Amirault grilled poblanos in foil until the peppers exuded juice, then the charred flesh was peeled off and blended with the poblano juice, which he then combined with agave nectar. “Instead of muddling peppers or trying to make a spicy tincture, which can be oftentimes extremely temperamental, you’re getting a really deep grilled flavor with smoke, with spice,” he explains.

While this tends away from the simplicity of simple syrup, Amirault maintains that the only time the blended approach to syrup fails is when it doesn’t go far enough. His rule of thumb for this technique: “The bigger, the bolder, the better.”

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