Editor’s note: This story from the quarterly Star Tribune Magazine was printed before the coronavirus pandemic reached Minnesota. Before visiting places mentioned, please check to make sure they are open, and be aware that other details may have changed.
A core element in a well-balanced cocktail is sugar. But those tiny crystals don’t blend easily into ice-cold liquid. A little heat and some water turn the sweetener into syrup, an indispensable ingredient begging to be infused with flavors that take a drink from common to craft.
Herbs, fruit or flowers imbue their unique flavors into a next-level syrup. “Simply put, a flavored syrup adds dimension to a cocktail, whether you’re looking for depth, brightness or a specific flavor,” says Dan Oskey, co-founder of Tattersall Distilling. “It’s also a sound way for a drinkmaker to exercise a little bit of creativity.”
Take a basic mojito: muddled mint, lime, soda, spirit. At Raag Progressive Indian Cuisine in Edina, bartender Amirtharaj Michael adds to that a housemade syrup infused with kokum, a sour fruit that appears in some Indian curries and fish dishes.
“There are no limits” to what can be made into a syrup, says Jesse Held, one of the proprietors of Earl Giles Bottling Co., which produces cocktail syrups — more than 150 types — and other mixers for bars around the Twin Cities. “The surface has barely been scratched when it comes to developing flavor profiles and combinations,” says Held, whose company will open a distillery in northeast Minneapolis later this year.
“Without sugar,” he says, “cocktails don’t survive.”
Three to try
Tattersall Distilling, tattersalldistilling.com
Epazote, an herb used in Latin American cooking, lends a savory flavor to a honey and camomile syrup in this gin-based cocktail. “The world continues to get smaller in terms of our exposure to global culinary traditions and trends,” says co-founder Dan Oskey.
Parlour Old Fashioned
This classic cocktail employs a “secret weapon syrup,” says Jesse Held, who designed the drink that’s become a phenomenon (Parlour sells more than 35,000 a year). Piloncillo, which is Earl Giles’ “flagship” syrup, is made from an unrefined Mexican brown sugar that imparts an “earthy” flavor on top of its subtle sweetness.
Raag Progressive Indian Cuisine, raagindiancuisine.com
This coconut mojito made with aquavit gets an unusual upgrade from kokum, a small sour berry in the mangosteen family. The kiwi-like flavor is infused into a housemade syrup along with black pepper, sugar, cumin and sulfuric black salt. The sweet, tart and spicy mixture adds complexity to an otherwise familiar cocktail.