The essential quality that all great cocktails share in common is sessionability, a term used to describe a drink so engaging that people stick with it throughout the course of a night. The fresh movement has helped to create even more exciting possibilities. But ask anyone who has ever attempted to devise a fresh cocktail sensation and they’ll attest to how difficult it is to achieve.
Success in this case depends entirely on balancing all of the drink’s characteristics such that they can be appreciated equally. Stray toward any one extreme and you’re headed for trouble. For example, a cocktail shouldn’t be overly tart, sweet or potent. A drink with too much flavor quickly will become overbearing; not enough, and it’ll be a lackluster dud.
Balancing the components in a drink is the function of modifiers, ingredients used to soften the edge of the base spirit while enhancing its natural flavor. Modifiers should never dominate a cocktail; on the contrary, they’re intended only to imbue the concoction with dimension and personality.
Liqueurs and cordials traditionally have been employed as modifiers in cocktails. They add flavor, aroma, body and sweetness, all of which are appreciated easily in the finished cocktails. Using premium liqueurs as modifiers does have its downsides: Relatively expensive, they increase the alcohol content in a drink.
In response, bar chefs and master mixologists increasingly are using flavored syrups to propel their drinks into the “great” range. Designed specifically for use in drink making, the consistency of these syrups is sufficiently thin, so when mixed they meld effortlessly with the other ingredients. Low in cost and free of alcohol, syrups have become absolute necessities behind the bar.
Since the birth of the cocktail at the beginning of the 19th century, simple (sugar) syrup has been a workhorse behind American bars and is fundamental to the preparation of such classics as the Old Fashioned, Irish Coffee, Mojito and Caipirinha. The chief advantage of using simple syrup is that it will immediately go into solution, whereas much of the granulated sugar will remain undissolved.
Simple syrup is easily prepared by combining equal parts sugar and hot water. Creative options when making simple syrup include substituting granulated white sugar with brown sugar, sugar in the raw, agave nectar or fresh cane juice (guarapo). Each will produce slightly different tasting cocktails.
Another creative twist is infusing simple syrups with the flavor of cucumber, peppers, spices, ginger or seasonal fruit. They’re made by slowly heating equal parts water, granulated sugar and the featured flavoring agent until all of the various components have integrated fully. For highly specialized drinks, creating customized flavored syrups is a viable tact.
However, many in the business consider preparing flavored syrups in-house as problematic. The process can break down in execution and yield unsatisfactory results. For one thing, fresh produce varies greatly in quality and ripeness depending on availability, which dramatically will alter the flavor of the finished syrup. Ensuring that the staff always prepares the syrups in the same manner presents another operational challenge. Regardless of the reasons involved, inconsistent flavored syrups produce inconsistent cocktails.
Fortunately there is an easier, more reliable way to get your hands on sensationally flavored syrups — namely go out to the store and pick up a few bottles. For example, Monin and Torani market a broad selection of ultra-sophisticated syrups created from fresh, high-quality ingredients sourced from nearly every agricultural region in the world. These syrups and others are proving a boon to mixology and dovetail perfectly with the growing trend of preparing cocktails using the finest, freshest ingredients.