Bartenders have always seemed arcane to me. They’re separated from the crowd by a waist-high wall surrounded by mysterious substances in bottles. Ask them for a drink by a strange name like “Rusty Nail” or “Bay Breeze“, and they start pouring, stirring, and shaking moving so quickly who knows what went in. And with a flourish, you receive a sweating glass. Abracadabra, basically.
I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious ingredients that was present in Victorian cocktails. I think of grenadine as sweetened food coloring. Actually, these days that’s what it is. Most bars in the States use Rose’s Grenadine, which is food coloring and corn syrup. But in Victorian times, grenadine was fruit flavored syrup, usually made from pomegranate juice. The name is from the French word for pomegranate, though it can be made from cherry, currant, or raspberry as well. Regardless, it is always a red sweet-sour syrup.
Pomegranates trees were grown in glass houses in Victorian England. But the climate wasn’t right for setting fruit out of doors. Still, there were close-by sources of pomegranates to make grenadine syrup. Pomegranate trees were planted widely all over the Mediteranean. Grenada in southern Spain is even named after the pomegranate. And something like a modern Italian soda made from grenadine syrup was available in France. “…In the French cafes, the visitor will find a number of light beverages that will not compromise his health, such as the fruit syrups, Orgeat or Grenadine, with seltzer water…”
In modern times, pomegranates are known as a good source of antioxidants which are thought to have various health benefits. Victorians didn’t know about antioxidants but they also considered pomegranates health food. Lord Bacon recommended wine made from pomegranates as a remedy for liver problems. And recipes for pomegranate syrup show up in druggist and pharmacist literature of the 1800s. This is just a guess, but the use of grenadine in cocktails may possibly be an outgrowth of an older use as an aperitif or digestif.
Here’s the recipe I used to make pomegranate syrup:
- 16 oz. pomegranate juice
- 1/2 oz. lemon juice
- 1/2 oz. vanilla extract
- 16 oz. syrup
- sufficient soda foam
I couldn’t figure out what soda foam was, so I skipped it. I’m hoping it was either a preservative of some kind, and keeping the syrup in the refrigerator will cover for it, or they just meant to serve the syrup with enough soda water to make a nice drink. Syrup usually means simple syrup, but modern grenadine is insanely sweet. So I went 3 to 1, water to sugar, instead of the usual 1 to 1. The result was brown rather than red, started with a strong vanilla burst (I’d go with 1/4 oz. next time), and tasted fruity instead of New Jersey.
How did it work in cocktails? First I made Italian sodas. Those are just soda and syrup, so I thought it’d be easier to taste the difference. The tasters could tell the difference, but generally liked New Jersey better. They said it tasted a lot sweeter. I assume that’s because of the corn syrup and because the Roses doesn’t have the sour ingredients like lemon and pomegranate. The kid picked the bright red one because she liked the color better.
Next I made Singapore Slings from this recipe:
- 2 shots gin
- 1 shot cherry brandy
- 1 shot lemon juice
- 1 tsp grenadine
The tasters either couldn’t tell the difference or guessed wrong which was which. Not surprising really. Flavor-wise, there’s a lot going on in a Singapore Sling.
I’m a bit disheartened about how this turned out. I love how classic bars still have weird ingredients that are made in a monastery from a secret combination of herbs. Some of the inventors might have called themselves alchemists or wizards. My sample size was two, but apparently people like corn syrup and food dye better than fruit juice and romantic history.
–update 5/5/2010– I made another batch of grenadine with a lot less vanilla. The flavor still came through extremely strong. Apparently if you don’t want it to taste like vanilla, don’t put any in. Yeah, I perhaps ought to have figured that out. In other news, I gave most of the first batch to some friends of mine. According to them, it makes amazing cherry cokes. Which is strange because it contains no cherries. The human tongue is a strange and wonderful creature, I guess.