When it comes to the art of making great cocktails, there are certain aspects of the process that tend to be given inordinate amounts of attention and importance by the average consumer. It should go without saying that good cocktails need quality base spirits and competent bartenders to assemble them, but if you stop there, you’ll also be stopping short of the cocktail bar-quality execution that your home drinks really deserve. The devil, as it always turns out, is in the details.
There are, in fact, myriad factors that can contribute to markedly better home cocktails, whether it’s proper glassware, having quality liqueurs/bitters on hand, or even your source of ice. But one of the least romanticized, yet most effectively transforming tools you can make use of at home are quality cocktail syrups.
Even the idea of cocktail syrups may not be common to the average cocktail drinker, precisely because they often exist outside of commercial brands. Rather, the place you’re most likely to encounter them is in drinks prepared by quality cocktail bars, most of which craft an array of homemade syrups and juice blends to take their drinks to the next level. It’s one of the key things a cocktail bar’s drink program can do to set itself apart, pioneering flavors that aren’t easy to replicate with a bottle that comes off the shelf. Most of the available commercial syrups, meanwhile, are simply sugar delivery vehicles designed to sell cheaply. Quality syrups, unfortunately, involve more time and cost, which makes them hard to sell in a liquor or grocery store.
Enter, Austin, TX’s Liber & Co., who have made cocktail syrups their sole focus, with a mission to make specialized, restaurant-quality syrups available to drinkers everywhere via their simple web store. With a friendly and intuitive design, and an extremely deep selection of recipes (almost 200 of them!) built around the dozen varieties of syrups they offer, it’s impossible to read through these drink ideas and not want to give the company’s syrups a spin.
Experimenting as I have been with rum and classic tiki drinks in 2019, I reached out to Liber & Co. about perhaps sampling some of the brand’s almond orgeat or gum syrups, thirsting as I have been for the opportunity to finally make a mai tai from the comfort of my own kitchen. Doing me several better, they responded by shipping out a box containing samples of all 12 syrups, which has led to several months of experimentation for myself and my fiance. Verdict? Most of these syrups are great, and I don’t want to go back to life before I knew about them. There are a few I still haven’t gotten around to playing with (caramelized fig syrup, Texas grapefruit shrub), but allow me to stump below for a few of my favorites.
The first bottle of syrup we opened, and the first that ended up empty, sadly. I love the stone-fruity flavor of passionfruit, especially within the confines of wild ales and cocktails, so I had a feeling this would be up my alley. And indeed, this syrup lends an intense, delicious essence of pure passionfruit juiciness to whatever you put it in. It’s wonderfully balanced between sweet and tart, gives drinks a vibrantly attractive yellow-orange color, and is ridiculously versatile.
Yes indeed, more so than perhaps any of these other syrups, the tropical passionfruit syrup can be applied toward almost anything. It’s present in cocktail recipes that call for bourbon, scotch, rum, gin, tequila, cachaca, sherry and beyond on the Liber & Co. website, and I’ve yet to find an application where it just doesn’t work. You can use it to make such well-regarded tiki cocktails as Chicago’s Lost Lake, which combines rum, lime, pineapple, maraschino liqueur, Campari and passionfruit, or simply throw a little into your next daiquiri. Perhaps even better, it can also be used to make some really delicious mocktails, if you’re not in the mood to imbibe. We’ve immediately grown fond of the “Miraflores” listed in the Liber & Co. website, a combination of tropical passionfruit syrup, tonic syrup, lime juice, lemon juice and soda water. It makes a truly satisfying cocktail alternative when you’re looking to cut back, and I wish the Liber & Co. website had even more zero-alcohol suggestions.
The quest for good commercial orgeat is what led me to Liber & Co. in the first place. As I’ve grown more interested in classic tiki cocktails over the course of the last few years, I’ve longed to expand my repertoire beyond simple daiquiris and the like, and it eventually became clear that I would need to find reliable sources of ingredients such as orgeat and velvet falernum. Where to actually buy those ingredients is less of an obvious answer: Many liquor stores don’t stock orgeat at all, and when you are able to track some down, it’s not always clear if they’re simply artificially flavored sugar syrups. True orgeat, at the very least, should possess a thick texture and opaque appearance, and make its almond origins clear. It’s an important element to many different classic tiki drinks, to the point that you really can’t make something like a mai tai without it.
Liber & Co.’s orgeat gives me everything I’ve needed in this field: A blast of sweet, citrus-accented almond flavor, with hints of bitterness and marzipan-like confection, which plays beautifully in a mai tai (although I will note that their house mai tai recipe calls for significantly more orgeat than necessary, to my taste). It’s an integral background note in a lot of classic tiki drinks: You can use it to make something classical like a Bermuda swizzle, or go nuts and start incorporating it into whiskey cocktails that feature bourbon or rye, if you want to give them a nutty accent.
Is there any cocktail ingredient more universally overlooked and underestimated than properly made simple syrup? For being relied upon to contribute the desired level of sweetness in so many different styles of cocktails, a lot of drinkers have a tendency to assume that all sugar syrups are the same. Suffice to say, this isn’t the case at all.
At a 2:1 sugar/water ratio, Liber & Co.’s product is what cocktail guides are talking about when they call for “rich syrup,” at double the ratio of regular simple syrup. Rich syrup is popular among bartenders already, for both textural and flavor reasons, but Liber & Co.’s product is the tiki-lover’s twist, which is “gum syrup,” due to the presence of gum arabic, a natural emulsifier made from African acacia trees. Gum syrup, therefore, is used both for sweetening and to add texture to classic cocktails, making them feel more silky and full-bodied on the palate. It’s not a huge difference, but in a simple cocktail such as a daiquiri that is defined by the presence of only a few ingredients (rum, lime juice, sugar syrup), that textural upgrade stands out all the more. Liber & Co. also takes things further with products like a pineapple gum syrup, but I’ve found the regular one particularly invaluable.
Fun fact: Were you even aware that classically, the primary flavor of grenadine was pomegranate? This is a cocktail component that has become so degraded over the decades that most drinkers don’t even have a solid understanding of what exactly grenadine is supposed to taste like, besides “red-colored sugar.” The most popular commercial varieties of grenadine, such as Rose’s, have never been in the presence of a pomegranate, much less contain the juice of one, so it should go without saying that genuine grenadine is a significantly different animal.
Liber & Co.’s simply named “Real Grenadine” is made from cold-pressed pomegranate, along with sugar and orange blossom water, which contributes a hint of floral component not unlike what you’d taste in orange blossom honey. You can still use this to make all the classic mixed drinks that call for grenadine, like the tequila sunrise or the non-alcohol Shirley Temple, but those versions will be much improved for the better. Of all the Liber & Co. products, this feels like one of the biggest upgrades over what you’d normally be buying at the grocery store—actual fruit juice, vs. food coloring. Two guesses as to which is more satisfying?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.