While over-sweetened daiquiris, mudslides, and their sugary ilk thankfully reside in boozy purgatory, their saccharine ghosts continue to haunt the world of mixology. “Bartenders have been dissing each other since there were bartenders. The straight-up easiest insult is ‘he makes sweet drinks,’” says Philadelphia Rising Star Mixologist Al Sotack.
Exceptions are made—often for classic cocktails—but cocktail syrups are considered a dirty secret among many bartenders. Yet a growing number of mixologists are enduring the barbs of their peers and publicly, prominently crafting and mixing syrups of all kinds.
“It’s funny because, for a lot of people, the Franklin was the bar that took the bitter, boozy thing too far,” says Sotack, who’s happy to show off his “syrup program” at Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. “My bar uses a lot of syrups because we work with a lot of fresh ingredients, and in my mind syrups are often the most stable, consistent way to work with certain ingredients—as opposed to, say, an infusion.”
Sotack’s syrups are really delivery systems for fruit flavors, herbaciousness, and even bitterness. His Red Wedding cocktail melds mulled wine syrup with rum and apple brandy to create an autumnal drink that recalls hot spices and fireside quaffing, but which is nevertheless a refreshing, over-crushed-ice drink. And while his impossible-to-pronounce Ocelotl is super boozy, it’s also super balanced, thanks to the green apple syrup, which hits the nose more than the palate.
Don’t dare roll your eyes, either. Sotack offers a word of warning to bartenders who sneer at sugar-enhanced drinks, claiming a dry palate or a preference for the complexity of sours. “It’s easy baggage to inherit, and terrible to carry with you if you’ve chosen a career making sours,” he says. But without the sweet, the sour becomes super sour. “Balance is an overrated word in the cocktail world, but I don’t know a better one for talking about booze to citrus to sugar ratios.”
Other bartenders have used syrup to impart flavor without being too assertive. Even hops. Bartender Brian Means at Fifth Floor in San Francisco, who has whipped up kale cordials and eucalyptus syrups, recently tried his hand at an Anchor Steam syrup. “It’s about finding that balance, to incorporate that umami, savory aspect into the drink,” Means says. “The beer syrup gets just a little of the bitter hops flavor into the cocktail.” Jay Zimmerman of Brooklyn’s Ba’sik has also crafted beer-based syrups, turning to the oft-maligned Budweiser, boiling it down with cinnamon into a hoppy cordial, and using it to add a bit of frothy bitter-sweet balance to one of his drinks. "When we first opened, we had Bud cans for staff drinks, so I tried making [a syrup] out of it. It wasn't very good," Zimmerman says. "After a few more tries, it came out tasting just like Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
There are many paths to balance, though, and at the end of the day house-made syrups are as much about a well-crafted cocktail as they are about giving the finger to the anti-syrup snobs. “It’s really fun to make syrups, and I like doing stuff that is the opposite of what everyone else is going,” Sotack says. “Cause I’m a contrary motherfucker.”