A Change in Cocktail Land: Syrups Are the New Bitters

Today, bitters come in dozens of flavors—and they've spurred on a brand-new niche-ingredient category: artisanal syrups.

Photograph courtesy of Montrose.

Less than a decade ago, if you wanted cocktail bitters, you pretty much had two options: Angostura or Peychaud's. Savvy bartenders recognized a business opportunity and rushed to create their own potions. Today, bitters come in dozens of flavors—and they've spurred on a brand-new niche-ingredient category: artisanal syrups.

As with bitters, many new syrups were created by bartenders turned entrepreneurs with specific drinks in mind. Years ago, for example, it was hard for bartenders to find any quality orgeat, the almond syrup needed for a proper mai tai (which is why many bars use amaretto instead), so early brands like Small Hand Foods and B.G. Reynolds' created their own products.

To flesh out the offerings, Small Hand Foods also created pineapple gum arabic syrup for a proper pisco punch, while B.G. Reynolds' stayed devoted to tiki tipples with syrups like Don's Mix, a combination of grapefruit and cinnamon that is essential to the original zombie recipe. Newer companies like Wilks & Wilson have come up with other drink-specific syrups, including a lime-mint simple syrup for the mojito and a grenadine for the Jack Rose and Ward Eight.

Nearly all the new syrups are made with real ingredients and (often organic) cane sugar, rather than artificial flavorings and corn syrup. This aligns with the movement toward better-quality cocktail ingredients, and it saves everyone a whole lot of muddling. (Syrups provide consistency from drink to drink in a way that muddle-to-order mixology can't, because fresh fruits, berries, and other ingredients vary from one to the next. Plus, sugar is a preservative, which lasts longer than fresh ingredients.)

It was only a matter of time before bartenders began releasing ingredient-focused syrups rather than ones designated for specific cocktails. Maine-based Royal Rose Syrups, which launched in 2010, comes in flavors like tamarind and strawberry fennel, while San Francisco'sWilliam C. Paige syrups have seasonal flavors mixed together, like a plum-blackberry-cherry syrup sweetened with organic honey. Jo Snow Syrups began as a coffee-syrup company but expanded into mixology-friendly, farm-forward flavors like rhubarb-rose-pink-peppercorn.

Tonic Syrup Is the New Quinine

By far, the top trending syrup is tonic syrup. Rather than use the laboratory-grade purified quinine that tonic-water brands use, bartenders are going straight to the source: bark from the cinchona tree. This is typically boiled, filtered, and added to sugar, citrus, and other flavorings. Then you, the customer, add soda water and gin and drink the hell out of it.

Surprisingly, you'll find more brands competing in the artisanal tonic-syrup game than in the regular-tonic arena. The latest list includes Tomr's,Bradley's Kina Tonic,Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic,John's Premium Tonic Syrup,Haber's Tonic Syrup,Five by Five Tonic Syrup (bittered with gentian root), Strong Tonic,The Volstead Act Company Tonic Syrup, andLiber & Co. Spiced Tonic Syrup. Even gin companies are catching on; Hendrick's developed its own tonic syrup, but it only distributes it to a few select bartenders and the occasional handsome liquor writer.

These tonic syrups vary from being light and citrusy to bitter as heck, but they all share one common characteristic that bottled-tonic-water brands don't: They're brown from the bark source. We're entering a brave new era of great syrups, but in the case of tonic, it's probably best to drink your G&Ts in vintage colored glassware.

—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of alcademics.com.

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