At New York’s Porchlight, the Jalapeño Diablo is “hands down” the top-selling cocktail, according to beverage director Nicholas Bennett. A straightforward, effervescent mix of chile pepper–infused tequila, lime juice, soda water and cassis, the riff on the classic Diablo also includes three-quarters of an ounce of housemade ginger syrup. And that ginger syrup has traveled a long way to land in this drink.
“Ginger has always been one of those ingredients that draws attention,” Bennett observes. Simple highballs, like the Moscow Mule and Dark ’n’ Stormy, have traditionally relied on a quick pour of ginger ale or ginger beer for spicy zing. But, notes Bennett, “It’s also a flavor that’s turned up to 11 when you use fresh juice [in syrup form].”
In New York, an entire generation of ginger syrup–spiked cocktails—the Gin-Gin Mule, Attaboy’s Dark ’n’ Stormy, to name a few—still rely on the dueling ginger syrups of two industry standard-bearers: Audrey Saunders and the late Sasha Petraske.
“Back in 2009, when I was running the cocktail program at Momofuku, there were two competing ideas for using ginger in NYC,” recalls industry veteran Don Lee, most recently managing partner at Existing Conditions.
One school of thought originated with Audrey Saunders, who created a ginger syrup after she took over the bar program at Beacon in 2000. Fresh, peeled ginger is simmered with brown sugar, water and lime, then strained. That same recipe, albeit with the ginger finely grated or processed to a “mulch consistency” before being combined with the other ingredients, became the base of Audrey’s Ginger Beer, a key ingredient in her signature Gin-Gin Mule.
Other bartenders who cut their teeth at Saunders' Pegu Club—notably, Jim Meehan—carried the technique to PDT (see PDT’s House Ginger Beer, a central component to the bar’s passion fruit–spiked Mezcal Mule). Lee, who also worked at PDT, learned the technique for this relatively light style of ginger syrup as well.
A separate—and spicier—version originated with Sasha Petraske, whisking uncooked ginger juice (right out of the Breville) and sugar into a syrupy consistency. Variations on that “sweetened ginger juice” were used by former Milk & Honey bartenders (Sam Ross, Joseph Schwartz, Michael McIlroy) in drinks like Attaboy’s Dark ’n’ Stormy, where the spec is four parts ginger juice to three parts granulated sugar. The recipe hasn’t changed in 15 years, says Attaboy proprietor Ross, since the bar sought to build a better ginger beer to lengthen Bucks, Mules, Presbyterians and other classic highballs. (The Penicillin, meanwhile, steeps sliced ginger root in a 1:1 honey-and-hot water syrup).
“When designing drinks for Momofuku I wanted a punchier ginger flavor and adapted the Sasha style,” Lee recalls. His revision called for one part fresh ginger juice to two parts sugar, combined over low heat. Lee also brought that recipe to Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions (both now closed).
John deBary, former bar director of Momofuku and founder of nonalcoholic aperitif brand Proteau, recalls learning the ginger syrup from Lee, though he added a twist: After the ginger juice and water are combined over heat, the mixture is quickly transferred to an ice bath to chill, which yields a slightly smoother texture.
“A chef from Momofuku showed me that the faster you get from hot to cold, the less crystallization you get with the sugar,” deBary explains. “It’s optional, but it’s a nice touch, especially if you need to use it right away.” Among other drinks, he uses the ginger syrup in a nonalcoholic Licorice Hot Toddy.
DeBary, who worked at PDT as well as Momofuku, notes that the Milk & Honey/Momofuku version is “very different from the ginger syrup we used at PDT.” Notably, it’s spicier and stronger: “Any drink becomes a ginger drink once you use this really intense stuff,” he says. He also notes that the PDT version uses peeled ginger, the Momofuku version does not, which he prefers for the earthier, “rougher around the edges” flavor that the skin contributes.
In turn, Nicholas Bennett learned to make ginger syrup from deBary while working at Momofuku’s Ssam Bar. Now beverage director at Porchlight, part of the ever-growing Union Square Hospitality Group, Bennett has already taught the ginger syrup specs to the “newbies” currently learning the ropes. It’s extremely likely one of those bartenders will one day carry the ginger syrup to another bar—and evolve it further there.
Until then, Bennett quips, he’s sticking with his current recipe. “If there’s another way to make it that tastes better, I haven’t tried it.”