Not terribly long ago, I attended an anniversary party thrown by two elegant friends. Every party consideration had a characteristic style and grace, from the sophisticated canapés to the repertoire of the jazz band to the quality of the Champagne. Everything, that is, but one. For those who desired a good cocktail, the bar selection was as appealing as a dirty thrift store for someone in search of an Armani suit: a sad table strewn with gin, vodka, whiskey and a few plastic bottles of tonic water and sodas.
The good news is that this kind of embarrassment needn’t occur anymore. The cocktail revolution has spawned a promising new o shoot—mixers worthy of both the quality of the spirits coming to the market and drinks top bartenders are mixing with them. The founders of Fever Tree seeded the movement ten years ago when they decided that the quality gins on the market deserved better mixers. Their tonic launched a revolution that continues to this day, spawning options like Bette Jane’s from San Francisco and Boylan’s Heritage from Brooklyn, both of which produce brisk, snappy G&Ts.
But the advancements in mixers go far beyond tonics, sodas and ginger ales. Now, by barely lifting a finger, you can make a Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour or Tom Collins with Elderflowers and Hops.
Those two drinks are thanks to Bittermilk, a South Carolina-based company founded by a couple of bar owners, Joe and Mari Elena Raya of Charleston’s Gin Joint. They sell complete cocktail mixers in compelling flavors, from the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned (bittered with gentian root and cinchona bark) and the New Orleans Style Old Fashioned Rouge, to the Charred Grapefruit Tonic with Bulls Bay Sea Salt. Just add your favorite spirit, shake or stir, and you’ll achieve a complex, sophisticated drink almost worthy of a mustachioed, vest-wearing barkeep. A bottle is good for around 12 cocktails, making the $15 price tag a bargain.
Of course, with convenience comes compromise. And the compromise with any ready-made mix is the freshness that comes from the gush of whole citrus. Bottled stuff just never tastes as vibrant or crisp as freshly squeezed juice. Or you can opt for a syrup.
Syrups are at the heart of many cocktails, whether simple or complex. Often flavored with spice or herbs, syrups are an effective way of thoroughly and smoothly integrating accent flavors into a cocktail. They are also the bane of most bartenders’ existence—they can take a long time to make, can be sticky and messy, and always seem to run out faster than expected. This is why the new crop of syrups is the best way to up your cocktail game.
The couple behind Bittermilk released a brand of syrups called Tippleman’s in April. Unusual flavors include Burnt Sugar, Smoked Maple, Falernum (a blend of lime peel, ginger and tropical spices used in some Caribbean-tinged cocktails) and Lemon Oleo Saccharum (a classic citrus base for punches). Whether you’re just adding whiskey to make a smoked maple Old Fashioned or mixing gin, lemon and soda to the Ginger Honey to make a complex Collins, the syrups create delicious, complex drinks.
The best of the new syrups are from Cocktail & Sons, run by husband-and-wife team Max Messier and Lauren Myerscough from New Orleans. Bartenders with experience in New York and San Francisco, they discovered a demand for syrups while consulting for bars in small towns around Louisiana and the south. “It was taking bars five minutes to make an Old Fashioned,” Messier told me. “The drink needn’t be so involved, especially if you have a base like Oleo Saccharum to start out with.” Flavored with lemon and orange peels, Oleo Saccharum is just one of the duo’s flavors; they also offer Spiced Demerara, Honeysuckle & Peppercorn and Mint & Lemon Verbena. All are robust, punchy and pure in flavor, made by Messier personally with raw, unscrubbed sugar from a Louisiana farmer and flavored with local herbs, flowers and spices.
If you’re throwing a holiday party this year, you must avoid two things: the sad table of mixers and spirits for guests to mix their own drinks, and being stuck playing bartender for your guests. The latter is a hole from which you may never climb out. Readymade cocktail mixers like Bittermilk are one solution—just add your favorite spirit. And if you have it in you to squeeze citrus or to mix syrup and spirit, you can have even better tasting drinks: Make the drinks in large batches and have guests shake and strain their own, or simply have them add a spiced syrup to a glass with a couple fingers of rye and a lemon twist, and—voilà—a perfect Old Fashioned. Thanks to the enterprising and labor-savoring efforts of a few ambitious bartenders, sophisticated, complex cocktails need no longer be a hassle.
This article first appeared in W&S December 2015.