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Simple syrups infused with seasonal ingredients enhance cocktails

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Manuel Perrier likes a nicely balanced cocktail. Not too sweet, not too sour.

The Montreal-based bartender always has a few basic ingredients on hand: vodka, gin, bourbon, sparkling water, fresh ice, lemons and limes for squeezing.

And most important of all: homemade syrup.

Simple syrup, as it's known in the business, is the indispensable cocktail substitute for granulated sugar, which doesn't fully dissolve in cold liquids, whereas the syrup mixes instantly and completely. Basically, it's one part water to one part sugar, brought to a boil and then simmered briefly until the sugar dissolves and the liquid has slightly thickened. Cool it down, transfer to a covered bottle or jar, store in the fridge and use as needed.

Creative cocktail types don't stop there. They infuse their simple syrups with herbs and spices, berries, citrus zest and ginger.

Come summer, it's nice to have a variety of homemade syrup on the go: lime syrup for jacking up the citrus flavour in mojitos, rosemary syrup to add to sparkling wine and ginger syrup for adding zingy sweetness to non-alcoholic ice tea. An ounce (30 ml) or so added to a tall drink goes a long way.

These syrups are inexpensive and easy to prepare, and they last a long time stored in the fridge. It's fun to play around with flavours, especially now that there is such an exciting variety of fresh, local herbs and fruits available in the garden and at the market. Moroccan mint makes an aromatic sweetener; Thai purple basil produces a gloriously mauve syrup; rhubarb yields one that is rosy pink.

Perrier, too, admits to going a little crazy when he starts making syrup. He concocts grapefruit, lemon and lime varieties by steeping zest in his syrup while it is still warm, then adding freshly squeezed juice when it has cooled down.

His favourite is lemon verbena syrup for jazzing up gin and tonic. In winter, he buys dried lemon verbena leaves in bulk at the health food store and steeps them in boiling water to extract their flavour. But in summer, he turns to fresh herbs when he can find bunches at the market.

Also in his fridge is a bottle of pink-tinged syrup made with South African rooibos tea, cinnamon and cloves, which he shakes with spiced rum and Dubonnet for a jewel-toned cocktail.

Perrier says the procedure for syrup-making is always the same. Combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan. Add spices or other flavourings, then heat to boiling. Lower the heat and simmer a few minutes. Add fresh herbs or zest and leave to steep for at least half an hour, then strain the liquid through cheesecloth or a coffee filter and discard the solids. Refrigerate syrup in a clean jar with a tight seal.

How much of the flavourings to use is a question of personal taste, he says. For more intense flavour, use more and leave to steep longer.

Perrier says certain ingredients marry especially well. He loves the combinations of cherry and coriander; mint, lime and green peppercorns; rosewater and orange zest; ginger and tomato.

"It's important to taste and adjust as you go. And then taste some more. There is no right and wrong."

He cuts through sugary sweetness with the sour taste of lemon, lime, grapefruit or unsweetened pomegranate juice and gives extra dimension to his syrups by introducing unexpected herbal or spice notes.

Here are a few simple syrup recipes to get you started, and some ideas for using them in drinks.


Simple Syrup

Use this classic syrup an ounce (30 ml) at a time. It keep in the refrigerator for many weeks.

1 cup (250 ml) water
1 cup (250 ml) sugar

Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves and liquid thickens slightly. Remove from heat. Allow to cool and transfer to a clean bottle. Store in the refrigerator until needed.


Lemon Verbena Syrup

2 cups (500 ml) water
2 cups (500 ml) sugar
A large handful of lemon verbena leaves (about 30)

In a medium saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil over medium heat. Simmer briefly until sugar dissolves. Add verbena leaves and cover pan. Let steep for about half an hour. Strain liquid through a fine-mesh strainer and let cool.


Rose and Lime Syrup

A syrup of freshly squeezed lime juice and bottled rosewater, found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, this adds exotic floral notes to iced tea or gin and tonic. Add an ounce (30 ml) or so to the mixed drink, stir and serve.

2 cups (500 ml) water
2 cups (500 ml) sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup (60 ml) rosewater

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in sugar, reduce heat and simmer five minutes or so, until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add lime juice and rosewater. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, cool and store in the fridge.


Rosemary Syrup

This herbal syrup is intensely scented and deeply flavoured. Try mixing a spoonful into a flute of sparkling wine; top with cranberry juice.

1 cup (250 ml) water

1 cup (250 ml) sugar

4 fresh rosemary sprigs

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and let stand at least half an hour, or up to three hours.

Strain, discard rosemary sprigs and transfer syrup to a clean jar or bottle.


Ginger Syrup

The spicy jolt of fresh ginger root gives this sweet syrup real character. Use it to sweeten iced tea with lemon, to make a rum-based Dark and Stormy (recipe follows) or in a classic ginger ale.

1 four-inch (10-cm) piece ginger root

1 cup (250 ml) sugar

1 cup (250 ml) water

Zest of half a lemon

Cut unpeeled ginger into thin slices. In a medium saucepan, combine ginger, sugar, water and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar, then reduce heat to low and simmer 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool before straining out ginger and lemon zest and transferring to a clean jar or bottle. (For more intense flavour, do not remove ginger immediately from syrup.) Store in refrigerator until needed.


Dark and Stormy

1 oz (30 ml) ginger syrup (see above)

1 oz (30 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice

2 oz (60 ml) dark rum

Club soda

In a lowball glass, combine ginger syrup, lime juice and rum. Add ice and top with club soda.


-- Postmedia News Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2014 C4

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