It’s a cold, snowy, Monday evening in New York City’s flatiron district. Your favorite restaurant is closed for a private party, and you’ve decided to branch out. There’s a hot new dining location just down the road that your friends have been raving about. You step inside and shake off the cold, pleased you are able to get a small table right away.
The host pulls out your chair and smiles as you settle into your seat. She places the dinner menu in front of you, and the wine list to your right. You smile back, but gently push them away, thanking her. As she leaves, you’re brimming with anticipation. You know exactly what you want, you’ve been thinking about it all day. You relax, momentarily, and take a sip of the water just provided to you by the young man in the black tie. You notice a slightly older, more confident gentleman making his way to your table, and your excitement is reignited. He greets you and asks how you’re doing. “Hungry,” you say, grinning. Before he can reply, you blurt out, unrestrained, “I’ll have the fish! With potatoes, and broccoli.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the confused waiter replies. “Which type of fish would you like?”
“Any fish,” you answer. “Your cheapest fish. With potatoes and broccoli, please.” You’re grinning again, confident in your decision.
Again, the waiter appears perplexed, but handles it with tact. “Ma’am, tonight the chef has prepared a pan-seared Halibut with—“
“Doesn’t matter what fish,” you interrupt. “I’ll take Cod, if you have that.” You retain your smile.
“Yes ma’am,” the unflappable server continues, “with a lemon, wine, caper, and dill sauce, accompanied by hericot verts and cauliflower gratin. I apologize, but tonight we are not offering a Cod dish. Perhaps I can walk you through our menu? There are other seafood options as well as—“
“I just want fish and potatoes,” you blurt out, your smile fading away. “Don’t you have fish and potatoes here? What kind of restaurant doesn’t have potatoes?” What kind of restaurant, indeed.
You settle into your seat at the bar. Through the stench of burnt fryer oil and stale beer you can smell something almost relatable to food. Bacon maybe? The floor is covered in muddy footprints, the back bar in more than one layer of dust. You take off your overcoat, and look around for a hostess. Spotting a young lady in a green polo shirt you motion to her with a smile. “Would you take my coat, please?” you ask. “Why?” she replies, “you don’t want it anymore?” You recoil, stunned, pulling your coat to your chest. “I beg your pardon?” you retort. She chuckles and walks away.
Following a moment of awkward silence, the bartender approaches. A young man, possibly out of high school, his hair is disheveled and his shirt is untucked. A pencil perches precariously behind his left ear, and the tattoos run down his right arm from shirtsleeve to wrist. You believe you see more than one naked woman in the colorful milieu.
With a quick nod, the kid asks, “Whatcha havin’, bud?”
“A menu please,” you respond, to which one is tossed, randomly, in front of you. “Any specials?”
“It’s all special, my man,” the young bartender says. He stands in front of you, staring impatiently as you scrutinize the selections. You notice a plethora of burgers, and not much else in the way of choice.
“Is the beef grass fed?” you ask.
“The bartender raises his eyebrows. “I dunno what they eat, man. They’re frozen when they come in, and hot when they go out.”
“What about organic vegetables? Are the sides and toppings local and sustainable produce?”
“Bud, I got the lettuce from the grocery down the street about three hours ago ‘cuz we ran out of it after lunch. So, I’m guessin’ that’s pretty local. You want a burger or what?”
As you contemplate your response, another young man in a stained white t-shirt appears from the kitchen. He gestures to the bartender, asking, “Dude, got a smoke? I’m fuckin’ shot.”
You decide maybe you’re not so hungry after all.
Let’s face it, we rarely pick restaurants haphazardly. If we need a quick bite, we hit up fast food or the local coffee shop. If we plan to entertain friends or enjoy the creations of a famous chef, we dress up and visit a nicer location. We scour the internet for Yelp reviews, Google reviews, and Tripadvisor reviews. We stare for hours at Zagat ratings, Michelin ratings, and New York Times ratings. On our phones we flip endlessly through Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram pictures. And we do all of this so that when we decide to spend our money at the restaurant we choose, that we have the best possible idea of what we are spending that money on, how the food is going to taste, and what type of experience we are going to have. We do this, seemingly, without training or coaching of any kind. The fear of being even remotely surprised by any facet of a restaurant’s production leaves us trembling and unsure. Is the caviar really Beluga? How is the foie gras prepared? Are the meatballs really the best in the city? Because you’ve had meatballs all over the city and you know how meatballs are supposed to taste. You’re a meatball aficionado. You’re not even going to give the damn meatballs the light of day unless they get at least a four star Yelp review from three of your closest followers. Fuck it, skip the meatballs. Not worth the chance for sixteen dollars. Unless they are….
So why don’t we apply this same thinking to the bar? As stated in the overwhelmingly awesome column (here) in Esquire Magazine by Aaron Goldfarb, people rarely choose a bar based on what drinks they serve. But you would never choose a restaurant without having at least some sort of an idea as to whether or not their particular choice of cuisine appealed to you at that particular moment. Why the disparity? Why is there such a chasm between the cocktail bar and the dive bar, such a disconnect between one end of the spectrum and the other? The reality is, there isn’t a spectrum at all. There’s no line of continuity, no scale from one to ten. The fact is, you either have a beverage program or you don’t. The strength of your beverage program can be judged, but first you have to develop and implement one. Therein, lies the rub. If the above stories seem silly, it’s because they are. If we witnessed anyone behaving in that manner in either of those situations, you can be sure we would act with either laughter or disdain. Surely we would tweet about it. But these situations happen in bars all the time. Customers are confused as to what to order and when, and as industry professionals, we are not doing a good enough job of helping them learn.
It’s not altogether complicated to paw through your state’s liquor ordering guide and (assuming you have the capital to spend) purchase a bunch of booze. You don’t need to know a whole lot about Scotch whisky to know that drinkers will order Macallan, Glenlivit, Glenfiddich, and Chivas Regal, based solely on name recognition. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand you will sell Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek if you display them on the back bar. Flavored vodkas are plentiful and cheap, so why not just order as many as possible? This doesn’t, however, constitute a beverage program. Neither does the mass collecting of all of the possible iterations of a given liquor. For example, while I’d be impressed if a bar offered every possible bottle of Scotch available in a given market (I’m looking at you, Owl Shop), that type of gross investment isn’t all that inspired unless every bartender that works at the establishment can educate me on how each selection tastes, and how it compares to the others in its range. Merely having a lot of choices without any education can actually detract from consumer demand, as the liquor list can appear pretentious and daunting. In most cases, a finely tuned liquor list, with bottles chosen for taste, price, region, food pairing, accessibility, and purpose, will net the business owner positive customer feedback. So why doesn’t it happen more often, and whose fault is it?
The answer is three-fold. Number one, it’s a lot of work to develop and institute a quality beverage program. Number two, there’s little demand for it. Number three, and the kicker, is that most restaurant and bar operators don’t have the slightest idea of what they’re doing, and they don’t care. So when I consult with an operator on the possibility of developing a bar program for their establishment, I begin in much the same way that I began this series, with the little things. Why spend thousands of dollars on quality booze if your bar uses boxed sour mix, bottled bloody mary mix, brown limes, Rose’s lime juice, Apple Pucker, and the like? It makes little sense to invest time, energy, and money into the research and purchase of expensive and artisanal spirits if your bar still clings to the bottled and boxed mixers of old.
In the previous article, we mentioned how simple, sharp citrus fruit, like lemons and limes, can be utilized to bring bright, vibrant tastes and smells to craft cocktails. The days of the prepackaged sour mix are long gone, and restaurants looking to up their game have already hopped on the fresh juice bandwagon. But there’s another side to sour, and that’s its opposing force: sweet. To complement the acidic component of a drink (or bitter, for that matter), there needs to be sugar, in one form or another. Table sugar, demerara, muscovado, turbinado, honey, agave, Truvia, are all examples of sweeteners, but the most important of ingredients, and the starting point from which all others should branch, is simple syrup.
So what is simple syrup? Strictly speaking, simple syrup is nothing more than a 1:1 ratio of white table sugar to plain water. It takes the place of granulated sugar in cocktails, achieving two main purposes. First, it is incredibly time consuming to dissolve granulated sugar (even “bar sugar” which is essentially superfine table sugar.) You may have noticed that slightly grainy last sip of your Old Fashioned. That’s due to the fact that it takes several minutes to properly saturate sugar in cold water, even using a muddler. The second, is the difficulty in gaining a consistent dilution ratio. Unless you’re measuring the amount of water you are diluting your sugar in, how can you be sure that the drink stays consistent from one to the next? Face it, you’re splashing water on the sugar from a soda gun. It’s going to vary from glass to glass. Simple syrup allows a consistent dilution rate, and speed of service without sacrificing quality. But one size does not fit all. Changes in concentration and temperature can alter not only taste, but sweetness and mouthfeel. Top level bartenders realize nuance, and slight variations can cause the difference between cocktail success and failure. Knowing how to tailor your syrup to suit your needs will separate the professional bartender from the amateur.
A quick chemistry lesson. The chemical name for table sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (or complex sugar) made up of two monosaccharide (or simple sugar) molecules: fructose and glucose. The fructose and glucose bond can be chemically separated by either a catalyst (such as lemon juice or cream of tartar), or by heat. In industrial applications, a catalyst is less time-consuming and more precise. In restaurants, chances are you’ve made your simple syrup by heating your water up on a stove or hot plate, and adding sugar until it fully dissolves. What you didn’t know, is that you’re effectively changing the chemical makeup of the syrup by doing this, and the resulting syrup is called invert syrup (called so because of how polarized light changes direction when shone through the different syrups.)
Why do we heat simple syrup? Like most bartending routines, mainly because it’s how we were taught. But is it the ideal method to make our syrup? Maybe, maybe not. Heating sugar and water in the temperature range of 130-140 degrees F. will effectively dissolve your sugar, but the heat causes the sucrose molecules to separate. The resulting fructose-glucose, or invert syrup, will not only be sweeter (fructose is sweeter than sucrose), but it will be less velvety and smooth, due to the greater viscosity of the sucrose molecule. Subtle differences, but important ones. Heating your syrup at a temperature closer to boiling will cause your syrup to develop a burnt, caramel-like quality that can contaminate nuanced cocktails. Heat it at a cooler temperature, and crystals may develop, as the sugar has not fully integrated with the water. Adding cream of tartar or lemon juice may prevent crystallization and break apart the sucrose bonds further, but it may require 20 minutes or more of boiling just to rid your syrup of a lemon flavor.
One plus to heating your syrup is that the resulting invert syrup actually extends shelf life. You see, water activity is the amount of water in a substance that isn’t immobilized or chemically bound. High water activity = high chance of spoilage (red meats, fruits.) Low water activity = low chance of spoilage (dried pasta, grains.) Because monosaccharides aren’t smaller than disaccharides, they take up more room in the solution, thus reducing water activity and increasing shelf life. But what if I told you that you could have your cake and eat it too?
Increasing the concentration of sugar by adding an extra part to the syrup yields a 2:1 sugar to water solution. This is my go-to for simple syrup in all applications that I can control. First and foremost, the 2:1 syrup (called rich simple syrup) does two immediate things. One, it gives me a concentration of sugar that better approximates granulated sugar (so that I no longer need to adjust recipes that predate syrup), and it doesn’t water down my cocktail as much as 1:1 syrup does, while maintaining the same level of sweetness. I simply use less, and get the same result.
Now, I can heat 2:1 simple syrup and end up right back where I started, or I can add two parts sugar to one part slightly above room-temperature water and shake the shit out of it. Eventually, it will mix completely, and I have a perfectly sweet sugar solution that doesn’t taste burnt, sweetens my cocktail without watering it down, and has an amazingly silky mouthfeel due to its increased viscosity. And, if that all wasn’t enough, the greater concentration of sugar increases shelf life more than 1:1 ever could. I even throw an ounce of vodka in the mix, per liter, just for shit’s sake. I have a bottle of said syrup in the fridge right now that’s going on six months, no mold, and tastes great. But don’t take it from me:
Camper English, did an experiment in which he tested the shelf lives of different sugar syrups. On this site he states: “I found that 1:1 simple syrup spoiled in about one month, 1:1 syrup with vodka lasted three months, 2:1 simple syrup went six months without spoiling, and 2:1 simple syrup plus vodka was still unspoiled when I stopped the experiment at six months.”
But what of other sweeteners?
Agave Nectar: Despite what you may think, agave nectar isn’t a nectar at all. While it is marketed as a product gained in a similar fashion as maple syrup, agave nectar is actually a highly processed, fructose-rich syrup produced from the starch of the agave’s pina, or the same portion of the plant used to make mescal and tequila. The process is not unlike that of high fructose corn syrup, as that syrup is made from a processing of corn starch. Agave nectar is essentially no healthier for you than table sugar. While its low glycemic index results from less glucose, the abundance of body-harming fructose counteracts many health claims. Fructose, unlike glucose, is processed in the liver. It also contains more calories than white sugar. Like most bartenders, however, I’m concerned not so much with health as I am with taste. Agave nectar has a rich flavor that is hard to duplicate and compliments any aged spirit as well as mescal variations.
Honey: In this case, raw, organic honey harvested directly from beehives is the way to go. Packed with enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, honey may be the healthiest natural sweetener available. Dilute with an equal part of water to allow for greater mixability. Raw honey is notoriously difficult to integrate into a cocktail without first being diluted.
Maple Syrup: Go for Grade A here, the better, thinner stuff. Grade B is thicker and used more in cooking. Since we’re all familiar with the flavor of maple syrup, I’ll simply add that the flavor is intense, and doesn’t compliment everything. Use sparingly. If you see Grade C, it is the same as Grade B.
Sucanat/Muscovado/Panela/Jaggery: Unrefined cane sugar. Essentially dehydrated sugar cane juice, or cane sugar with the juice evaporated. All of the molasses content remains.
Turbinado/Demerara: Partially refined cane sugar, some of the molasses remains. Syrups made from these sugars will have a depth and richness of flavor that simple syrup lacks, and can bring an amazing funk to mixed drinks.
Stevia: All-natural and calorie free, the stevia plant tastes like sugar without being sugar. In its raw form, its dozens of times sweeter than sugar, so in commercial applications (like Truvia, Stevia in the Raw) it is combined with other additives. 86% of Truvia by weight is erythritol, a carbohydrate that our bodies lack the enzyme necessary to process, hence zero calories. The most successful use of Stevia that I’ve seen applied to the bar business is to steep the leaves, themselves, in alcohol when making homemade liqueurs or tinctures.
Coconut Sugar: a healthy, natural, sustainable sugar that is made from the sap of the coconut tree. Although difficult to source, it can add real depth of character in cocktails. Its taste is similar to maple and its glycemic index number is low.
Gomme/Gum Syrup: essentially simple syrup with gum arabic (Acacia gum) added. Gomme syrup will add to your cocktail a rich, silky mouthfeel and bolder body than traditional simple syrup. It also acts as a stabilizer, preventing crystallization in rich syrups. You can buy gum arabic at specialty baking stores, but I buy mine on Amazon. Add 1/4 cup boiling water to 4tsp powdered gum arabic. Stir and let sit for a couple of hours. Stir again. You will notice it thickens up like a gel. Make your 2:1 simple syrup in a pot on the stove. When it’s ready, stir in your gum mixture and simmer on low heat for a couple minutes. Do not raise the temperature, it will foam all over the place. After 4-5 minutes, skim off the foam and bottle. Piece of cake.
**One note here on muddling sugar. While I avoid muddling sugar pretty much all of the time, there are two situations in which I believe it can suit the cocktail, one being an Old Fashioned when you have the time to do it properly. In this situation, I would use a sugar cube, and soak it with bitters. Then I would muddle for a good solid couple of minutes in a mixing glass until every granule is dissolved. It requires patience, I assure you. The second situation involves THE SMASH, and its Latin American variant, THE CAIPIRINHA. In both of these drinks, you are sprinkling sugar on wedges of lemons or limes and essentially using the graininess of the sugar to help pulverize the fruit. Very rarely do the granules survive this massacre. Should you like to avoid buying premade sugar cubes, I’ll list a short recipe, below:
Homemade Sugar Cubes: Mix one cup sugar (any kind) with 3 tablespoons water. When completely and evenly saturated, spread mixture on the bottom of a baking pan (like you might use for mac n cheese or meatloaf) and press down firmly. Using a knife, slice into small cubes. Bake at 250 degrees for about one hour. Let cool for ten minutes and then break it up. Simple as pie.
Utilizing our new sugars and syrups, here are some fun cocktails to experiment with:
- Slap in your hands 8-10 bright green and fresh mint leaves, and place them into a mixing tin
- 3/4oz freshly squeezed lime juice
- 3/4oz 2:1 simple syrup
- 2oz white rum (I use Vizcaya 12yr or El Dorado 3yr. Flor de Cana works well, also)
- Shake all ingredients with enough ice to fill up a highball glass.
- When through mixing, add enough soda water to tin to fill up the highball glass.
- Pour, unstrained, from tin into highball glass.
- Garnish with a fresh mint sprig and a straw.
- 2oz high quality London Dry Gin (Tanqueray, Beefeater)
- 3/4oz – 1oz 1:1 honey syrup
- 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon peel
Fonda la Paloma
- 1 1/2oz Imbue Petal & Thorn Vermouth
- 1oz El Buho Mescal
- 1oz 1:1 honey syrup
- 1oz freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
- 1/2oz freshly sqeezed lime juice
- 1/4oz 2:1 simple syrup
- Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lime wheel.
The Rum Old-Fashioned
- 2oz El Dorado 12yr Rum
- 1/2oz 1:1 Demerara Syrup
- 3 dashes Falernum Bitters
- Add ingredients to a rocks glass and stir with ice.
- Garnish with a lime peel
- 2oz Cachaca
- 1-2 sugar cubes
- 3-4 lime wedges
- Muddle lime wedges with sugar cubes in a rocks glass until dissolved.
- Pour Cachaca over muddled fruit and shake with ice.
- Serve in the glass you built it in