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Enjoying a lavender sea salt margarita or a mojito with hibiscus and mango doesn't necessarily require a trip to the bar, or even impressive culinary skills.
The rising tide of craft cocktails and distillers also has given rise to entrepreneurs making syrups, shrubs and other mixers. No Day-Glo margarita or cosmopolitan concoctions here: New products nix artificial colors and steer clear of chemical preservatives, relying on fresh fruits and spices as flavoring.
In other words, they're pretty darn close to what your favorite bar is already making in house. "A lot of them are really, really good," said Jim Kearns of Happiest Hour, slated to open in New York City this fall.
At $10-$20 per bottle, craft mixers and syrups are a relatively low-cost in for someone looking to drink better, cheaper. "Not everybody wants to go out and spend $20 on a cocktail, or just stick to simple drinks at home," said Jason Albaum, founder of Blue J Syrups, a year-old company whose rotating seasonal lineup includes lime and sage, spiced pear and orange vanilla.
Scrutinize the value, however, especially if you have some skills in the kitchen. "I always want to stop people in the grocery line who are buying simple syrup for $7 a bottle," said Meaghan Dorman, a bartender at Dear Irving in New York City.
That bar staple costs under $1 to make: Mix equal parts sugar and water, bring to a boil and then cool. For a flavored version, add chopped fresh fruit, garden herbs or ginger before heating, and then strain it out before use, she said. (Up for a challenge? For an advanced option, check out the spiced hibiscus syrup recipe for the Blood and Fire cocktail, below.)
With that in mind, the bottled mixers that are better deals have nuanced flavor combos, or use ingredients you couldn't easily source. "Something like Earl Grey and lavender, go ahead and purchase it," said Brad Nugent, wine and beverage director for Center Bar in New York City. "It's probably going to be more time consuming than it's worth for a home bartender to make that."
Take a look at the ingredients list, too. Ideally, a bottled mix won't have one that's much longer than the whole foods and staples you'd use to make such syrup at home.
The easiest way to use syrups is as a substitute in drinks that already call for basic simple syrup, Kearns said. Think old fashioneds, daiquiris, and Tom Collins, among others. "Go wild and experiment," he said. "There's so much more out there than white-sugar-based simple syrup. It's like the vodka of sweeteners."
Then branch out, looking for pairings that play off of flavors in your favorite spirits, or might work for a take on a classic, said Missy Koefod, a co-founder of 18.21 Bitters. "Our lavender and sea salt syrup makes an incredible margarita," she said. "It's got that sweet, and salty." Herbal and citrus flavors tend to pair well with gin and vodka; spice can make play off a tequila or whiskey. (Check out our slideshow for a few fancier pairing possibilities.)
If you opt to go off-recipe, expect to taste test and experiment. "From my experience with various bottled syrups, they tend to be on the sweeter side," said Lucinda Sterling of Middle Branch in New York City. Not only may a spoonful be plenty, but you may also need to add in some fresh citrus juice or vinegar to balance out the sugar rush. "That way, the drink isn't too sweet," she said.
Mocktails and sodas work, too. "We have a lot of people who drink them without alcohol," said Jamie Imhof, founder of Cinch Tonic Syrup, whose line includes No. 3, a hibiscus with ginger, almond and lemon, and No. 6, cucumber with basil, celery, white tea and lime.
Think beyond the bar cart, too, said Kari Morris of Morris Kitchen. Moscow Mules aside, her ginger syrup might be mixed with seltzer for soda, used as a marinade for shrimp, or a sauce for ice cream. Albaum has used his syrups on snow cones and in pancake batter.
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, fill with ice and shake vigorously until well chilled, serve over a large ice cube in a double rocks glass.
In a small sauce pan boil water over medium heat, add hibiscus, chillies and let simmer over low flame for 5 minutes. Turn fire off add the sugar stirring until completely dissolved and let it cool down and strain through a fine sieve. Keep refrigerated.