If you are new to good cocktails in general, or simply trying to get a handle on this whole Tiki sub-genre, chances are you look at a lot of recipes in books or online that stop you cold. It says it right there, “1/2 ounce Passion Fruit Syrup” or “1/4 ounce Rich Vanilla Syrup”. And you move right along to the next recipe. Why? Because you are not very certain what a passion fruit even looks like, and you are extremely certain that you’ve never seen any on the shelf next to the Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima at the megamart. And while you are relatively sure what vanilla syrup probably is, you don’t have any of it either, and since you are not rich, why the Hell would your (non-existent) vanilla syrup be? And you just close your browser tab and go mix yourself another Dry Martini, proud at least that your vermouth is fresh.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, syrups seem quite complicated and time-consuming to the guy who hasn’t gotten into them. And they can be resource- and refrigerator space-intensive. One of the main reasons I started doing Tiki Months was to concentrate all my expected failures into one big Binge of Science™ and keep my wife’s ire temporally localized over all the chillbox space I’d be using. It turns out though, that cocktail syrups are for the most part quite easy. There are only a couple of methods you need for all cocktail syrups I’ve run into, and keeping a few minor things in mind makes all of them simple, moderately fool-proof, and even easy on cleanup.
Simple is just that. It is nothing more than plain refined sugar, dissolved in water, in a range of concentrations, by various methods. It is a very basic concept, covered widely on the web, but I’ll do a quick run-down since there are plenty of folks who’ve never made any, and because most of the things I’ll say about it apply to all syrups. First, don’t buy it. Seriously. Simple is easy and cheap to make and store. Once the sugar is completely in solution, it will not settle out. Keep it cold, and it will last for a good while. Add a splash of vodka (or better, Golden Grain), and it will last for a very long time indeed.
The ratio between your sugar and your water (by volume) will dictate how you use it. A one-to-one ratio is is what is properly called “simple syrup”. If you go to 2:1 sugar to water, you get what recipes will usually call “rich simple syrup”. In Tiki drinks you will often see something called “rock candy syrup”. Rock candy syrup is just a simple solution where you have dissolved as much sugar into the water as it will accept. The ratio will often approach 3:1. Personally, I tend to just make a single batch of simple at a 1.5:1 ratio, and use it for rich and simple alike. It saves space and time, and will work just fine in 95% of recipes calling for either simple or rich. For those where it doesn’t, simply increasing or decreasing the amount called for by a third will fix it and never have any of the adverse consequences you might find with many other ingredients.
The two main ways to get the aforementioned complete dissolve are with a stovetop or a good blender. Each have their advantages.
To use a blender, simply add the sugar and water and run it on high. Check periodically to see if all the sugar has disappeared. You are done. This method is fast, and you can fix the problem if you run out of simple during service or a party without a trip to the kitchen. But I have never managed to get a reasonable concentration for rock candy syrup with a blender. Your syrup comes out cool from the blender, having never gotten hot. This does not matter with simple, but it will matter with other syrups later.
For simple on the stovetop, just pour the sugar into a small pot, and pour hot water over the top. Turn on the burner to high and stand there until it boils. Don’t walk away. Watch that pot.
But a watched pot never boils!
Be patient. Crush some Candy. Listen to a podcast. Post a picture of your not-yet-boiling syrup to Instagram. Whatever. Indulge your inner hipster for a couple of minutes. Let the water come to a complete rolling boil. The moment you judge it has, remove the pot from the burner. The bubbles will disappear, and you can look to see if all the sugar has dissolved. Chances are it has. If you see any on the bottom, put it back on the burner for about another ten seconds of boil, then remove again. You are done. It is important to note that you should not, at any time, stir a simple syrup! You don’t need to, and it will splash syrup on the hot sides of the pot. It will instantly caramelize there, and you will be working the steel wool to get it off. The heat and agitation from just reaching a full boil will be all you need for concentrations up to 2:1.
The science here is that you do not want to evaporate too much water. If you do, it will throw off the ratio. It also will allow the sugars to get above 212 degree Fahrenheit. At that point, they will begin to caramelize. This changes their textures and their flavors, which you do not want in a simple. For rock candy syrup, you will need to suck it up and use a wooden spoon (and the steel wool later). Put in a 3:1 mix. Stir gently while bringing to a boil, and let it boil for less than 20-30 seconds while still stirring. Remove from the heat. Any sugar still undissolved is not going to at this point, and is likely a negligible amount anyway. When you pour off your syrup, leave the dregs with the undissolved granules in the pot, so they wont start forming real rock candy in your bottle.
This class of ingredient is cool as it has a lot of uses beyond just Tiki drinks. Two examples are cinnamon- and vanilla-infused simple syrups, but you can follow this method with virtually any spice you want to use. You have to use a pot for these, as the blender will not work. Simply set up a pot of 1:1 sugar and water. Drop in one or two sticks of cinnamon, or pods of vanilla. Than follow the method above of just letting the pot come to a boil. Remove from the heat and leave the spice in the pot for five to ten minutes. I suggest stirring the syrup (after it is off the stove) and tasting it occasionally until you get the flavor you want. Remove and discard the spices before you bottle your syrup. This works with most any dried spice. Just be sure they haven’t been sitting on the shelf too long, or they will have lost most of the oils that you are trying to extract.
Spice syrups don’t last quite as long as simple, only because the flavors start to fade after a week or three. Drinks made with these guys are delicious, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.
You don’t see many of these called for in Tiki drinks, but if you want to infuse your simple with soft herbs instead of hard spices, the process is the same, only put in your herbs right after you come off the boil. and don’t leave them to steep too long or they will cook.
These are the big Tiki syrups. I break them down into two sub-groups: Juice syrups and pulp syrups.
Homemade Grenadine is the King of juice syrups. Grenadine’s reputation has been utterly ruined by a billions gallons of the high-fructose corn syrup and red dye mixture of the commercial beverage industry. That stuff is only useful for making Shirley Temples, and your kids won’t even accept it in those once you make them one or two Shirleys with real grenadine. At its core, grenadine is noting but a 1:1 simple syrup, with pure pomegranate juice in place of water. You can make it with your blender (“cold-process”), or on the stove (“hot-process”). Unlike simple syrup, the method will make a huge difference in the flavor. Which you like will be up to you. If you have multiple children, they will split evenly and passionately about which one you absolutely have to make, and you will end up keeping both on hand. If you make yours via the hot process, I recommend letting the syrup boil for about 20-30 seconds or more to further cook the pomegranate and make the flavor more, um, hot-processy.
As with all juice syrups, remember to start with the best, pure juice you can lay your hands on. I do not go to the effort to juice pomegranates myself, because I do not have that kind of sinful past life to make up for. But not all bottled 100% pomegranate juices are created equal. I recommend Pom Wonderful. It is a huge, consistent brand that is available almost everywhere. And it has a much deeper, richer, pinot noir-like color than most brands. This will give you a more colorful final syrup. Don’t forget that grenadine has important things to contribute to the appearance of drinks, as well as the flavor.
I’m going to use Passion Fruit Syrup as my example for pulp syrups, as it is pervasive in Tiki drinks. There are many excellent commercial products out there, such as B.G. Reynolds. And if your choice is between processing whole fresh passion fruits to make syrup yourself, or buying commercial syrup, I’d say buy. But for most people, especially in cities, there is an excellent middle ground than makes making your own easy and inexpensive. Simply purchase frozen fruit pulp, such as the Goya brand product in the picture atop this post. You may need to visit your local Mexican specialty grocery to find it, but it is cheap, and comes in a wide variety of fruits. I’ve never even heard of many of them. As a bonus for your visit, your Mexican grocer will likely offer fresh limes at the best price in town.
My passion fruit syrup recipe is approximately 1:1:1 by weight: water, sugar, and passion fruit pulp. I suggest you start with this, and increase the amount of sugar, depending on your brand of pulp and your personal tastes. I put the sugar, water, and half the passion fruit in a pot and bring to a boil without stirring. As soon as it reaches a boil, I take it off and allow to cool for a minute or so. I then stir in the remaining passion fruit until it has all melted and combined in the syrup. When you add the fruit is important. Heat makes definite changes in the flavor of passion fruit, deepening and mellowing it. Whether this is a bad thing or not is pretty much a matter of personal taste. I split the baby because I think it gives a more complex result. If you really like the unadulterated flavor of passion fruit, you can even make your syrup in the blender. (If you do, dissolve the sugar and water first, before adding the pulp.)
I’ll close with a note that is both a disclaimer and a helpful tip. I make most of my syrups on the less sweet side, especially the passion fruit. There are several reasons for this. My taste in the resulting cocktail runs a bit to the tart side to begin with. More importantly, if your flavored syrup is not sweet enough, it is bog easy to make it sweeter by simply adding a little plain simple syrup. This will not change any of the balance of other flavors in the cocktail, or its texture, or appearance. It will just add the sweetness it might need. Conversely, it is very hard to reduce the sweetness from an overly sweet syrup. If you reduce the amount of syrup used, the amount of fruit or spice will also be reduced, which will throw off the balance of the drink. Over time and several batches, you will get your syrups to the sweetness that works for how you want to serve drinks. But start from the tart side and you won’t find yourself pouring out a lot of failed tries.