Syrups & Elixirs: or, when to use Falernum versus Falernum
Intellectual property: a nebulous category of who has the right to what is the brainchild of someone specific. It's certainly simple when you are talking about patents and trademarks and what not. But what about recipes? The line between a great bartender and a great mixologist, I would stipulate, is the difference between being able to execute properly "a" drink recipe (usually someone else's) versus being the one crafting the drink recipe that everyone else wants to make.
Picture yourself circa 1945, maybe even picture yourself as Vic Bergeron, aka Trader Vic. You've globe trotted to learn first hand what the natives are using and are now savvy on the delectable world of rum to boot. And now you've taken that knowledge and crafted some beauts for your cocktail menu. Those are YOUR drinks, and your drinks are what draws in the crowd. So you don't want those recipes just walking out the door, no sir. So you mix up your batches in private and label them obscurely with instructions to your bartenders for 1/2 oz bottle A and 1 oz bottle B and no one but you is in on the ole "intellectual property" or so you think.
Flash forward to today, and thanks to folks like Jeff Beachbum Berry, we now have an agreed upon 1944 Mai Tai recipe. But here's the rub folks....for the most part, we are indeed taking at face value, that the recipe given to us second hand (dare I say hearsay) is what the original creator actually concocted. Shoot, I see my own recipes not but a few years old bastardized and touted as being a "Tiki Lindy" recipe. Insert eye roll here. But this is a tangent.
I'm really here to talk about syrups and elixirs. You see, if you think cocktail recipes are a closely guarded secret, the bar-made mixers that go in them, well now...that's really something special. Because if you have a cocktail recipe with all things easily bought in the store, then any Joe Shmoe can make it. But, let's not also forget that the special mixers first used in tiki drinks of yore were much like the regional aperitifs of Europe...every one of them were a practical matter, made from what they had, with great regional variation and pride. I grew up in the South, so for me, it's no different than a BBQ rub. Jim's BBQ rub isn't anything like John's BBQ rub, but they are all perhaps considered Memphis style rubs. By definition, a syrup is at least a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water component making it viscous and sweet. An elixir by definition of the US government is a "clear, sweetened, hydroalcoholic liquid intended for oral use. Their alcohol content ranges from 5-40%." A tincture, on the other hand, is simply an alcohol extraction usually made by soaking or macerated the ingredients in high proof alcohol, usually 10 to 50% ABV and is not sweetened.
That leads me to Falernum. According to Beachbum Berry, Falernum originated in 19th century Barbados where it was an elixir (a infused rum based drink). Today, you've got choices of low ABV alcoholic falernums and non-alcoholic sugar syrup based ones. And they are all quite different in flavor from each other. How can this be? Well, there's isn't "one" recipe for the stuff. Just like your grandma's lasagna isn't the same recipe as my grandma's lasagna. So when do you use which kind? My dear friend, let me guide you. The secret is in the recipe of the cocktail. First ask yourself, does the recipe specify a brand? If so, then use that brand! If it doesn't, then look at the alcohol and sugar components of the drink. For example: the cocktail Saturn. It already calls for two sugary components: passionfruit syrup and orgeat. I use John Taylor Velvet Falernum because using another syrup would make the cocktail too sweet. In comparison, the cocktail Aku Aku Gold Cup calls for no other sweetener other than falernum and already has two rums, therefore I'm going to choose a non-alcoholic falernum syrup such as BGReynolds or SimplyGala or the like. But even amongst the syrups, flavors vary, so anytime you have the opportunity to try a brand straight up, do it! This will guide your palette when selecting a product for a specific recipe.
Making your own syrups and elixirs is certainly a possibly fun prospect, but the part of me that holds the pharmacy degree has to set the record straight on preservation. I hear so many people say "put a tablespoon of brandy in your syrup to make it last longer." WRONG. General rule of safe food practices is, assuming your equipment is properly sanitized, and your ingredients were fresh and not contaminated, if you make a syrup using a heat process that brings the liquid to a boil and you jar/bottle it hot, it's good for up to 7 days in the refrigerator. In order for a syrup to be self preserving against bacterial growth, you have to have at least a 65% weight to weight ratio of sugar to water content. That means out of 100 grams of solution, you'd have to have at least 65 grams of sugar. And, that does not necessarily keep fungus and mold from growing. Alcohol: you need at least 18% to be preserving from bacteria (note that live fungal spores are transported in 90% alcohol, so again, you aren't keeping out the fungi). So if you are making a 100 mL of syrup, you'd need 18 mL of that to be pure alcohol, which you can't get. So there's your 40% vodka or rum....you need 18 gram of alcohol per 100 mL of solution, each 100 mL of your vodka gives you 40 grams. You need 45 mL of your 100 mL solution to be vodka....that's way more than a tablespoon my friends. One cup or 8 oz is 240 mL....so you need 108 mL of your 240mL syrup to be your 40% alcohol. Or.....you can just make a smaller batch, don't add anything special and use it in a week. If your head is spinning, then just leave it to the experts to make the stuff.
Next upcoming topic: Orgeat, how to pronounce it, and when is orgeat not orgeat.