Pine syrup isn’t the most widespread cocktail ingredient, but among the bartenders who have discovered it, this fragrant, arboreal sweetener has become a staple of their repertoire. With delicate, wintery menthol flavors, pine syrup can instantly elevate a Gin & Tonic or put a new spin on the ginger-spice dimension of a cold-weather Pimm’s Cup.
One such devotee is Han Suk Cho, of Kato in Los Angeles, who learned to make pine needle syrup in a traditional fashion from her grandmother while growing up in Korea. To make sol ip chung (sometimes written as solip-cha) involves packing freshly foraged young pine needles in sugar and honey and leaving the mixture to gradually ferment and liquify over six months.
Thankfully, Cho has since adapted the recipe into a quick stovetop method that involves a much faster extraction by simply steeping pine needles in warm simple syrup. Cho showcases her pine needle syrup in a bubbly, zero-proof highball she calls the Pine Sudachi Spritz, which also calls for mint, sudachi juice (from a sour citrus fruit) and sparkling water. Guests have said the N/A cocktail reminds them of a G&T.
“Pine also goes well with cucumber,” says Cho. “Both of them have a nice refreshing quality.” And anytime she is using her quick-method pine syrup in a mixed drink, Cho includes a citrus element, like yuzu or the aforementioned sudachi. “Citrus acidity also complements very well with pine needle.”
The key to ending up with a pine syrup that expresses aromas evocative of a high-elevation forest stroll, according to Cho, is to forage from trees where there is good air quality, in areas that undergo a cold winter, and to do so in spring, when there’s new tree growth. More mature needles (and those from trees in warmer climates) tend to produce a woodier, less characteristic flavor. But for an off-season workaround, using pine needle tea (available online) as the base for a simple syrup is a fast track to adding that alpine flavor. When Cho has used this method, she has found she needed to increase the volume of dried pine needles “to match the potency and freshness” of newly collected needles.
Some bartenders, however, prefer to capture pine’s signature fragrant quality through another product: pine buds (aka pine cones or gems). In Alpine Europe, tradition calls for pine buds in the production of mugolio (“mugo” refers to the mountain pine, Pinus mugo, which can grow tall or present as a bushy dwarf plant; “olio” is Italian for oil) made in a process quite similar to that of sol ip chung.
For years, bartender Keith Mrotek, of Flora Room in Minneapolis, has been mixing drinks with Primitivizia, a bottled mugolio by Eleonora Cunaccia, a forager who canvasses the Dolomites for the choicest cones. Flora Room currently serves a bracing long drink, the Mediterránea, featuring mugolio alongside alpine gin and alpine liqueur, ginger syrup and citrus. “Categorically, I’ve used [mugolio] in gin-based cocktails because I feel like it can—magically—remove some of the ‘pine’ taste that gin cocktails have and mellow it out a little bit,” Mrotek explains. “It adds complexity in a way that you can’t wrap your head around. It’s like MSG or shio koji.”
That same complexity is at play at New York’s Seoul Salon, where bartender Sungrae Choi’s housemade pine cordial calls on both pine needle tea and dried pine buds (both sourced online). The cordial is employed in a French 75–like cocktail he calls Seoul Forest, made with gin, pine soju, prosecco and mint bitters. The citrus notes of the gin complement the pine cordial well. “I wanted the cocktail to be more bright and refreshing.”
Choi, who like Cho has lived in Seoul, explains that pine is a touchstone of Korean culture, representing sincerity and tenacity (as an evergreen would). Koreans often embark on therapeutic “forest baths” to reconvene with nature, Choi says, and his cocktail is intended to evoke that sensation. “I wanted to bring that pine flavor to the bar, so people can drink the cocktail and understand that part of Seoul.”