Making your own syrups at home yields some amazing, fresh flavors for your cocktails. Plus, you get to tell the story of how you made it yourself when someone asks what’s in that mystery bottle you’re pouring into their drink!
Simple Syrup really is simple. Over medium-low heat, mix one cup of white sugar with one cup of water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. For Rich Simple Syrup, use one cup of sugar to a half-cup of water. You might find the richness of turbinado or demerara sugar works better for certain drinks, where plain white sugar provides brightness and snap – experiment and see what you like. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.
Real pomegranate grenadine is miles above the common artificial kind and can be made easily at home. If pomegranates are in season (typically December through January), and you don’t mind a mess and a pain in the ass, you’ll get best results by using fresh. Cut pomegranates in half and break apart sections by hand, separating the juice-filled arils from their bitter white membrane. Place the arils in a small saucepan with a bit of water and simmer, covered, over medium-low heat until the arils burst and release their juice. You may need to crush some reluctant ones with the back of a spoon to get them to pop – you should get 1/4 to 1/2 cup of juice per pomegranate. Strain the juice and discard the arils. Mix one cup of fresh pomegranate juice (or 100% unsweetened pomegranate juice like POM brand in the off-season or when feeling lazy) with one cup of white sugar. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. When it’s cool, add one and a half teaspoons of orange flower water – easily found at Middle Eastern markets or online. Adding an ounce of 100-proof vodka will keep it from spoiling too fast. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.
In a heavyweight Ziploc, smash up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – just enough to break them into large chunks, not totally crushed into powder. A mallet, rolling pin, or even a muddler works well. Arrange in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet (use parchment paper if you like) and toast in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. When finished toasting, in a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 10 minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let the mixture steep, unrefrigerated, for 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 50 cloves, 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, and 1 whole nutmeg (crushed, not ground). Combine in an airtight container and add 8 oz 151 demerara rum, the peeled zest from 8 limes (being careful to not include any of the bitter white pith), and 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger. Infuse for 24 hours, then double-strain the infused rum to remove ingredients and small particles. Make a rich simple syrup of 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water and let cool. In an airtight container, combine the infused rum, the rich simple syrup, and 10 drops almond extract. Stir to combine. Let rest two weeks, refrigerated, for the ginger to mellow. Keep refrigerated. Will last about six months. (recipe adapted from Kaiser Penguin.)
Lightly toast 1/4 cup whole dried allspice berries just until fragrant then crush to break up, but not completely turn to powder. In an airtight container, combine the allspice with 1 1/8 cups 151 demerara rum (Lemon Hart). Let steep 10 days in a cool, dark place.
After 10 days, strain the infused rum through cheesecloth, then a coffee filter, to remove allspice. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups water with 2 1/2 cups brown sugar. Stir to blend until sugar is completely dissolved. Let brown sugar syrup cool, then add the infused rum. Funnel into an airtight glass bottle or jar and let sit 30 days in the refrigerator. This will level out the heat of the allspice. Keep refrigerated. Will last about six months.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 3 cinnamon sticks, crushed lightly to expose more surface area to the heat. Crush again, but don’t pulverize. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups water, then simmer 10 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cool & let steep two hours, then double-strain through a couple layers of dampened cheesecloth into an airtight container. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.
Honey Syrup keeps honey from freezing and seizing when mixed in cocktails. Just mix 3/4 cup honey with 1/4 cup hot water over low heat and stir to combine. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.
Split 2 vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Over medium-low heat, mix 1 cup white sugar with 1 cup water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add vanilla seeds and bean pods, whisking to distribute evenly. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Cool, then pour into an airtight glass container and let steep, refrigerated, overnight. Strain through a couple layers of dampened cheesecloth to remove fine particles and store in an airtight container. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.
Trader Vic’s (1944)
You really can’t improve on perfection, but that hasn’t stopped the world from screwing up Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai for almost 70 years. I’ve already detailed the secretive and combative world of Tiki in my write-up about the Navy Grog – I’d say that contributed to the degradation of the Mai Tai, but Trader Vic himself also changed his recipe as time went on, adding more citrus juices (and more rum). Trader Vic originally used Wray & Nephew 17-year old rum in his recipe, but the Mai Tai was so popular, he actually depleted the world supply of that rum (or they just stopped making it), then the same with 15-year expression that came afterward. These days, the Trader Vic’s chain restaurants make the drink with a crappy, artificial-tasting bottled mix and inferior rum. Feel free to experiment with mixing two different rums (as I do here), or try just one kickass rum in this. My friend Matt “RumDood” Robold says he’s made this with Smith & Cross and “enjoyed it more than he probably should have” and I can back that up – even just a quarter-ounce in place of some of the aged Jamaican rum works great. The great bang-for-the-buck aged rum Appleton 12 is a minor luxury. If you’re up for it, make a batch of homemade orgeat (recipe below), or look around for B.G. Reynolds‘ excellent version. Either way, done right using this old-school recipe, the Mai Tai will take you back to the early days of Tiki, as US Marines were returning from the Pacific back home to southern California, eager to both remember and forget what they’d been through over there.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Straws (optional), Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker)
Ice: Ice cubes, Crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Aged Jamaican rum (recommended: Appleton Estate 12 or Reserve), aged rhum agricole (recommended: Neisson Élevé Suis Bois or Rhum J.M. Vieux VSOP)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Curaçao (recommended: Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao), Simple syrup, Orgeat (recommended: BG Reynolds’ or make your own; recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime hull half (reserve from squeezing), Fresh spearmint
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
1 oz aged Jamaican rum
1 oz aged rhum agricole
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz Curaçao
1/4 oz orgeat
1/4 oz simple syrup
Shake well to chill. Fill a Double Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice, then strain the drink over the ice, adding more ice to top if needed. Garnish with the spent lime hull half (rind side up) and a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.
In a heavyweight Ziploc, break up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – looking for large chunks, not powder. A rolling pin or muddler works well. Toast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 4 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let steep 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about 3 months.