Today is Mixology Monday, and this month’s theme is “Inverted”, which could mean a lot of things. I intend to take it as turning a concept on its head, as you will see if you hang with me. Since it is Tiki Month on this blog, and other places as well, I’m going to keep with the Tiki theme and invert a Tiki element.
Part of the fun, but also a big part of the pain in the ass of Tiki are the myriad of exotic ingredients you need to make or track down. These syrups, juices, etc. take varying amounts of work to make or obtain, but they all have limited shelf lives and most have very little application to cocktails other than Tiki. If you keep enough of them on hand to make a decent range of Tiki drinks, you practically have to make nothing but, just to keep from throwing away a criminal amount of the stuff. This is both expensive and depressing.
This is the biggest reason for Tiki Month. I love Tiki drinks, but not enough to crowd out all the others in the larger world of craft cocktails. So I indulge myself in one month a year where I assemble all those fruits and home-made or difficult to obtain liquids, and chase away the cold. The whole idea of Tiki Month itself is a bit of an inversion, but not the focus here.
This post is about a particularly useful but problematic essential Tiki ingredient, ginger simple syrup. Ginger simple is awesome because of the exotic but gentle burn it can lend to a drink. It plays well with a very wide range of juices, spirits, and even other spices. Further, it is an exception to my rule above about Tiki syrups not being much use in more mainstream cocktails.
The list of decidedly non-faux-polynesian drinks that can be happily modified or improved by the mere substitution of your ginger syrup for plain simple is distinguished and too long to so much as scratch here. I’ll just name one: Rum Old-Fashioned.
Of the critical Tiki syrups, ginger simple is the only one I’ve tried making reasonably often when it is not Tiki Month.
And it is a pain in the ass.
The problem with ginger simple is that it lasts for a much shorter time than other similar infused syrups. The ginger flavor just packs up and leaves in a depressingly short time, leaving you with plain old simple syrup with an almost unidentifiable, imperceptible heat. Without a party or two, even during Tiki Month, the diminuative 12 oz bottles of ginger simple that I make don’t stay potent to the bottom.
I’ve done some research on extending ginger simple syrup’s life. A good thread at Tiki Central on a modified Mai Tai moves to an in-depth discussion of making ginger syrup last. The two prong approach they kind of settle on is to treat your raw ginger very roughly (Vitamix sounds like “Jack the Ripper” to fresh produce), and making your ginger syrup so strong it bites. I find this solution unsatisfying for several reasons. I don’t like brute force solutions. I imagine that this may introduce other chemicals into the syrup from the ginger than those you’d get in the traditional steeping method. Just starting with a stronger ginger content to delay the point where it fades to unrecognizability does not address the problem of the syrup weakening from one session to the next. And I’d spend longer cleaning my BlendTec carafe of all the fibrous remains than I would drinking the drinks I made with the ginger. I’m lazy. Sue me.
Another approach can be found at a blog with the mind-shatteringly awesome name of I Love You but I’ve Chosen Cocktails. It is more focused on creating a ginger beer base than a cocktail syrup. The approach here is to add a bit of lemon juice to the ginger puree, altering the PH. This allegedly helps stabilize the flavor essences of the ginger, making them less likely to volatilize. But now you have lemon juice in your ginger syrup, along with a lot of sugar. It could work in some applications, but a recipe calling for generic ginger simple may find this version problematic.
After wrestling this with some time before this Tiki Month, I’ve decided to
give up invert the problem; stand it on its head, if you will. I harkened back to the words of the mighty philosopher Mick Jagger, who once spake, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.“
Hipster kiddies, you probably don’t get that joke, but trust us old farts, it’s friggin’ hilarious!
Well, at least it makes sense.
What I wanted was ginger simple syrup that would be stable in flavor long enough to use most of it. But what I, and other cocktailians, needis a way to get ginger into a cocktail, in reliable amounts, easily. Not the same thing.
I hit on the solution while browsing the herbal remedy section of one of our nearby organic/locavore/gluten-free supermarkets. (When you reach a certain age, your body starts telling you to stop dismissing herbal remedies as the poppycock you always thought, and give them a chance.) Here on the shelf was a bottle of high-quality, food-grade ginger extract.
A simple syrup base is the normal way that bartenders and mixers have been prepping certain flavors so they dissolve easily in cold liquids for decades. Sugar is common in drinks anyway, and preserves and retains lots of flavors well. Just not ginger.
The scales fell from my eyes as I saw that I did not actually need to do this with a single, special-purpose ingredient. I picked up a bottle. And you don’t need a nearby organic/locavore/gluten-free supermarket to do the same. Amazon has you covered.
Now I just use plain simple syrup, the ready availability of which in my bar is exceeded only by that of gin, and about 6 drops of pure ginger extract per teaspoon called for in a recipe. Further, when I’m making up my own drinks, the amount of ginger I can deliver to the drink is divorced from the amount of sugar I add. I get the same ginger heat, with added reliability and flexibility. The ginger essences in the extract are contained in a small, well-sealed bottle, and stabilized with alcohol, not sugar. The bottle will last a good long time on the shelf next to my bitters.
I save space in my fridge, time and mess in my kitchen, grumpiness from my wife over said mess in the kitchen, and waste in my bar. All for a little cheat on the Traditional Method. It is Tiki Month, and if it teaches you nothing else, it teaches you that there is good stuff to be learned from that Glorious Lack of Authenticity!
And hey! This post is part of Tiki Month 2013 here at the Pegu Blog! Be sure to look around for LOTS more Tiki stuff all February!