How many types of simple syrup do you have?
In reporting on sweet drink modifiers recently, I realized that there’s almost no end to the flavor possibilities in housemade simple syrups. So much so that from now on I’ll consider how many and what sort of simple syrups a bar carries as an indicator of how serious a place is about its cocktails.
Not because it’s difficult, but because — according to everyone I’ve spoken with on the topic recently — nothing could be simpler. Using different sugars and honeys and incorporating various spices, fruits and even vegetables to make house-specific syrups makes sense in many ways: They're cheaper than housemade alcohol infusions, more efficiently tweakable, easily combined to craft flavor offshoots, adaptable to both cocktails and non-alcohol drinks and yet another way to preserve seasonal produce.
Simple syrups are not only cheaper to make, they're also important when looking for a way to add flavor without too much sweetness into a drink. One of the major complaints about today’s liqueurs, both cut-rate and expensive, is that they are simply far too sweet for many palates and tend to dominate a drink. And what about ingredients like cranberry, not easily found in a cordial? Perfect for a short-term, custom-made simple syrup.
Tropical and Tiki drinks are both the logical source and beneficiaries of the modern housemade syrup, now that so many of Don the Beachcomber's and Trader Vic’s recipes have been deciphered. But even places without much tropical influence have quietly built a range of syrups; at Clover Club in Brooklyn, Julie Reiner stocks two types of basic simple syrup, ones made with Demerara sugar, agave and honey, as well as pineapple Demerara syrup, macadamia orgeat, raspberry syrup, ginger syrup and many more.
But my current favorite simple-syrup experiment might be one created by Clint Rogers, spirits director of the two restaurants Henri and The Gage in Chicago. He uses a variety of ingredients — raspberry, tropical spice, cranberries — and methods to deliver sweetened flavors into a drink, but his most intriguing came when he wanted to get the autumnal flavors of a roast sweet potato into an Old-Fashioned. To make the syrup, he bakes, peels and chops the sweets, adds cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods to a light sugar syrup and lets the mix sit overnight, straining through a chinoise the next day.
That’s it. If the flavors don’t work, it’s a cheap experiment to correct. Ditto if the syrup starts to go off; starchy ingredients can swiftly begin to ferment, and if that happens, it’s an inexpensive fix, especially when considering the minimal cost of production.
Many commercial syrups are perfectly good flavor agents, and for most beverage programs, the proper solution. But there’s no reason that even the busiest chain restaurant can’t make their own basic simple syrup, even if it means handing the chore over to the kitchen. Why not save a little money while showing you’re taking the time to make your own ingredients? Americans want something special from their restaurants and bars today, and something, well, as simple as simple syrup might start you on the road to a beverage program that shows you want to be special.