Genie in a Bottle


Genie in a Bottle

What comes to mind when bottled syrups—even higher-end, beautifully packaged ones—are mentioned? Gourmet coffee beverages? Ice cream sundaes? Artificially flavored cocktails?

The concerns are understandable, especially as the fresh-bar/farm-to-glass mindset shared by bars of all genres is essentially a reaction to the overpowering sweetness inherent in cocktail recipes from previous decades.

As the American palate becomes more cosmopolitan and less favorable to intense sweetness, and as customers become more health-conscious and demand more “authenticity” in their drinks, the presence of syrups at the bar may appear to be an affront to the definition of a craft cocktail. After all, why mess with nature or drown it out altogether?

On the other hand, what can one do to keep bar offerings fresh when the fresh ingredients are not as widely available?

Mixology has for the last decade or more [moved] towards using fresh seasonal ingredients, and while this is something just about everyone agrees is a good thing, it also has a few drawbacks and hurdles to overcome,” states Jake Larowe, Bar Manager of the 1950s-themed, mid-century modern Birds & Bees in downtown Los Angeles. “When using fresh ingredients, each item will be slightly different. One good example is jalapeños, each one having a widely varying level of spiciness, making a consistently spicy cocktail difficult.

“Secondly, fresh ingredients don’t tend to last long. The last thing a bartender wants to do is put an old mushy piece of strawberry into a cocktail, which ruins the entire experience of the guest. Thirdly, some produce has a very short window of availability, and once it’s gone it is impossible to get more of it. This means a signature cocktail on a nicely printed menu is now no longer available.”

Companies like Italy’s Torani, and France’s Monin and 1883 offer dozens of ideas and solutions in regular and sugar-free formats. While they are often associated with coffee bars, their trade marketing also encompasses their products’ versatility at the bar by tapping into current flavor profile trends. Some craft cocktail bars and restaurants, meanwhile, have gained as much notoriety for their house-made syrups as they have for their finished cocktails.

Syrup producers and bartenders agree that an important consideration to take into account is that syrups are not intended to be a replacement for fresh ingredients. Instead, syrups—whether made in-house or purchased from a supplier—should be regarded as useful tools for a variety of situations.


Photo: Shutterstock/ EvgeniiAnd.

When It Rains (or Snows),
They Pour

Lisa Ash, 1883’s North American Beverage Innovation and Training Director, says that as fresh fruit isn’t always consistent or concentrated enough to impact a recipe, just a touch of syrup can boost the overall flavor of a beverage while adding consistency in quality to the finished product year-round. Furthermore, syrups are less costly than expensive liqueurs when used to intensify a flavor profile.

“When adding syrups to a recipe, you may want to add citrus, bitters, or a splash of water to balance the flavor,” Ash advises. “If adding flavored syrup to a sweet mixer, use a little less than you would for an unsweetened mixer. Keep in mind that if you are in charge of creating the recipe, test several versions of the recipe before determining which is the best tasting recipe. Next, be sure that the rest of the staff follows the final recipe.”

Andrea Ramirez, Torani’s Consumer & Customer Market Insight Manager, says syrups are more common than some customers and bartenders might think. She points out that as cocktail menus are broadening horizons on both sides of the bar and creating a demand for more exotic flavors, the brand’s range of syrups are available in many on-trend flavors (i.e., rose, lavender, pistachio, marshmallow) that are hard to quickly infuse into drinks, and in exotic fruits (longan, blood orange) not readily available in some markets or too expensive for some high-volume bars.

“Commercial syrups work well in high-volume bars because they offer consistency and efficiency that isn’t always easy to deliver with fresh ingredients requiring procurement, storage, and preparation,” says Ramirez. “It’s more beneficial for the bar to invest their resources in things their guests value. One bar might invest in garnishes requiring a bit of extra preparation, locally produced spirits, or even fancy ice spheres for signature cocktails.”

Education is key in reassuring staff and customers that using syrups is more about achieving consistency and quality rather than cutting corners, according to Ash. “The bartender should learn about the products he uses in the bar’s specialty cocktails,” she says. “Another way to assure the customer of quality is to avoid batching when possible. If batching is necessary in a high-volume restaurant, taste the batch with syrup included prior to service. Time and date stamps must be used, and anything made with fresh juices should be thrown out when the stamp expires or they taste off.”

Ash also recommends mixing fresh ingredients with few drops of a like-flavored or complementary flavored syrup to create a homemade taste profile. For example, if you make a drink with bottled raspberry syrup, you can blend in muddled raspberry or a bit of citrus or fresh herbs. While both Ash and Ramirez note that simple syrup, agave nectar, grenadine, almond (orgeat), and coconut are back bar basics, they suggest adding flavors on a seasonal or periodic basis that match up with the bar’s theme or food menu. Ramirez cites Ruby Red Grapefruit Syrup and Ginger Lemongrass Syrup as excellent choices for revving up fresh or pre-packaged juices, and adds the latter makes a nice base for a robust house-made ginger ale.

“If your establishment has a Caribbean theme, [add] tropical flavors such as coconut, mango, or banana,” says Ash. “If the bar specializes in craft cocktails, I suggest cane sugar, agave, and maybe a few of the floral flavors. You can also pair complementary flavors. Caramel with apple, strawberry with basil, watermelon with mint, pomegranate with lime, and so on.”

Home, Sweet Home

Though it takes extra effort, some restaurants and bars are crafting their own syrups to further distinguish themselves from the competition and better adapt their offerings to the local climate. Even with a year-round growing season in places like Southern California, Birds & Bees’ Larowe turns regularly used fruits into a homogenized consistent syrup. 

“By taking a large amount of a single fruit and making it into a syrup, you take the strongly flavored tart and spicy, and the less flavorful sweet and bland, and blend the flavors together, ensuring consistency in your cocktails while still keeping the fresh flavor or fresh ripe produce,” says Larowe. “Making an herb or fruit into a syrup means a bar program can always have it at its peak freshness. Buying a large amount of produce at peak freshness and making syrup out of it can make the [desired component] shelf stable for up to a month. Adding pectin to it, meanwhile, can make it shelf stable longer, while adding high-proof alcohol turns a syrup into a cordial and gives it an even longer shelf life.”

At Chicago’s Tied House, syrups are made using fresh ingredients usually from a local farm. “We change our cocktails four times a year, so we are interested in working with ingredients within that season,” says Bar Director and Sommelier Meredith Rush.
“I think that notion is incredibly helpful in speaking to guests, and they find the process and ingredients very interesting. On last summer’s drink list, we made a grapefruit, shiso, and pink peppercorn syrup. Grapefruit was in season while the shiso was from a local farm.”

During fall and winter, Rush acknowledges that while the bar is relegated to vegetables and winter citrus, that scarcity fuels the bar team’s creativity as does a very informed guest pool that knows what unexpected delights grow in the midwest during the off season. 

“We are also lucky that the flavor profiles of fall and winter lean warmer, more comforting, and savory,” says Rush. “When the chef created a lamb dish with pickled cranberries, we used the pickling liquid to create a cranberry shrub we used in the following months. She also made candied blood orange slices, and we used the leftover syrup to fortify a cocktail.”

Gina Chersevani, Bartender-Owner of Washington D.C.’s Buffalo & Bergen, says that if you make syrups correctly, they can last for up to a year, which is good for flavors used in different iterations in different seasons.

One example is Maine blueberries that reach their peak in July. To ensure the syrup will last as long as possible, Chersevani will sterilize mason jars before pouring the syrup into the container. To gain inspiration for cool weather syrups, she suggests checking out the farmer’s market for seasonal ingredients as, “pretty much anything can be made into syrup from beets to Japanese squash to certain herbs.” She also works with her team to create syrups from unexpected ingredients like a volcanic black sea salt from Hawaii that intensifies the presentation of a margarita crafted with mezcal or tequila.

“We create a Chardonnay Honey Syrup that we sometimes refer to as ‘sunshine in a syrup,’” says Stephen Blevins, National Director of Beverage for Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. “Honey imparts sweetness while the chardonnay provides the acid balance and adds to cocktails’ aromas. Think of citrus and apples that are in so many cocktails. The Chardonnay Honey Syrup plays perfectly off of them, offering the perfect balance between these fruits’ acidity and the syrup. In fact, we use a colder climate chardonnay that is more acidic.”

Although Flemings had pre-made mixers in its bar program in the past, Blevens made a conscious effort to get away from that because he observed guests insisted on fresh-crafted cocktails and asked specifically about the ingredients. Even with quality syrups used in the past, he feels the proprietary Flemings syrups, made daily, give the bars an edge among clients when promoting its high-quality ingredients.

However, like a good cocktail, Blevins stresses a house-made syrup should not be batched in large quantities but instead be made in smaller amounts more frequently so the final product is always fresh. With the Chardonnay Honey Syrup, mixing sugar and acid together
is a recipe that can go bad or be made incorrectly, and if something goes wrong or it goes off, the small batch can be readily discarded. “Whether you use white sugar, sugar in the raw, or a demerara [for the syrup’s base], it should be tasted by the bartender the way a chef tastes food. If it’s not right, they either adjust or discard it,” he adds.

Blevins also suggests crafting syrups with certain herbs for seasonal cocktails as certain aromatics play a powerful role in their appeal. During the holidays, for example, sage can elicit memories of locations and experiences.

In coming up with the perfect formula for a balanced syrup, however, Larowe admits there is no simple answer as each type of cocktail calls for a different amount of sweetness, and the other ingredients need to be balanced against each other as well as the sweetener. “A bartender should know the flavor profile of the spirits they are using, and they should have tasted the citrus juice for the day to check on the relative tartness of it, and they should straw taste drinks throughout the night to ensure that they are making the drink correctly and with the proper balance,” he says.

Chersevani, meanwhile, says syrups can be a good conversation starter and educational tool for bartenders looking to introduce customers to something new, such as edible exotic ingredients that are continuing the craft cocktail revolution.

“When we use a chrysanthemum syrup, we can educate people about its herbal notes and show how well it works with gin or rum,” says Chersevani. “Once you inform them about what they’re getting in the syrup component, they are not only willing to try it, but also order it ten more times. If somebody says the aromas of chrysanthemum remind them of perfume, I come back and explain that those aromas will enhance the cucumbers, gin, and other components of the drink.”   

Avoiding a Sticky Situation?

Although most customers are there to indulge and temporarily put their calorie concerns on hold, there will always be a customer wanting to know how unhealthy or sugary the syrup is. While there are some stevia-sweetened products on the market, most of the bartenders and syrup manufacturers agree the bitter aftertaste will probably compromise the final product. However, there are many alternative syrup bases beyond cane sugar.

Healthier (though caloric) bases such as agave nectar, honey, maple sugar, and other naturally occurring sweeteners impart richness and extra character to different spirits and ingredients. Maple sugar, for example, goes well with most brown liquors, while those with a honey base work well in white spirits with floral and citrus notes.

“We bartenders are living in a very creative time, and it doesn’t take a lot for us to convince customers to not only try things with syrups, but use them to try new flavors such as chrysanthemum syrup made with honey as part of a drink,” says Chersevani. “People will always be excited about trying something new as long as they know the ingredients are good.”

Elvis Presley Cocktail
Photo: Birds & Bees, Los Angeles, CA.

Elvis Presley

2 oz peanut bourbon

¾ oz lemon juice

¾ oz strawberry syrup

1/8 tsp Liquor 43

1/8 tsp Bertina Elderflower Liqueur

2 dashes Allspice dram

To make the peanut bourbon, rinse one cup of roasted peanuts in water and soak them in a bottle of Eagle Rare Bourbon for three days. Strain the peanuts out and store the bourbon. To make the strawberry syrup, in a large saucepan, combine 1lb fresh quartered strawberries and 16 oz water and bring to a low covered simmer, stirring with the whisk occasionally. Simmer strawberries until they fall apart when you move a whisk through them. Add 1 lb white sugar and stir until dissolved. Strain out the strawberries and discard. Transfer the syrup to bottles or jars. To make the cocktail, shake and strain the ingredients over a single large ice cube. Garnish with fresh strawberries and banana bread.

Jake Larowe, Birds & Bees, Los Angeles, CA

Caramel Shake

1½ oz bourbon

2 oz milk

1 oz Torani Caramel Sauce

or Salted Caramel Syrup

2 scoops vanilla ice cream

or 14 oz vanilla soft serve

Combine ingredients in a spindle mixer.
Pour into tall glass and garnish with whipped cream and caramel or molasses drizzle.

Andrea Ramirez, Torani

Radiant Ruby

1½ oz gin

¾ oz Torani Ruby Red Grapefruit Syrup

½ oz fresh lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and top with soda water. Garnish with a lime twist
or grapefruit slice.

Andrea Ramirez, Toran