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Build-A-Bar: The Glories of Grenadine

Five is right out.
Five is right out.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

My wife is pregnant. It's our third time in the barrel, and as unexpected a ride as the prior two. We (think we) know what we're in for this time, though, so it should be smooth sailing. To help ensure pacific waters, I'm (mostly) teetotaling in sympathy with my wife for the next 40 weeks or so. That seems like a pretty good reason to revisit my semi-abandoned nonalcoholic "cocktail" experiments. Drink along with me.

Grenadine is probably about as cliché an ingredient as can be found when it comes to the options offhandedly tossed at tee-totaling bar patrons. Shirley Temple, Roy Rogers, soda with a splash of grenadine and whatever else the bartender tosses in disdainfully. If you're in a good bar, one that makes its own grenadine, this won't necessarily result in a bad drink. If you find yourself staring at a bottle of Rose's, though, you're basically getting tinted sugar water for your trouble.

The thing is, grenadine is a classic ingredient in drinks both boozy and not, and it deserves more than a neglected space occupied by a dusty bottle of hummingbird food. It's not even difficult to make. Sure, it takes a couple of slightly esoteric ingredients, but

  1. This is becoming less true in general
  2. &
  3. In a city as multiethnic as Houston, few ingredients are impossible to track down

Those esoteric ingredients? Pomegranate molasses and orange flower water. The first, as far as I can figure it, serves to deepen and reinforce the flavor of the pomegranate juice that makes up the bulk of the volume. (You can skip this if you reduce the pomegranate juice to concentrate its flavor.)

The second is what really makes grenadine shine, in my opinion, adding a subtle but essential perfume to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward fruity sugar syrup. The fourth ingredient (we covered the third already), I'm hoping you've guessed. It's just sugar. Preferably turbinado sugar, which adds a nice richness to the finished product.

Once you've gotten your hands on those slight oddballs (I picked up both at the Phoenicia Market across from my office downtown), it's really just a matter of combining everything. A little bit of heat helps, if you're in a hurry.

The first time I made grenadine, I immediately started thinking about variations. I do this a lot, and I highly recommend it. From swapping out the almonds in orgeat to adding any number of modifying flavorings to simple syrup, it's a great way to put a fresh spin on an idea and spark creativity in cocktailing, with or without booze.

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As I began to think through permutations, cranberries came immediately to mind. They share pomegranates' balance of sweetness and acidity, with an even more pronounced astringency. As I've mentioned before, replicating some of the sensations of alcohol can vastly improve how a cocktail without it drinks. Astringency can be an integral component in a cocktail, and cranberries have it in spades.

This was all bubbling up right around Thanksgiving, so I decided to get a bit thematic. I've mentioned before that I always try to add a layer of flavor and interest when I'm adding sweetness (flavored simple syrups, interesting liqueurs, etc.), and figured grenadine shouldn't be exempted from that philosophy. Feeding my herbed-cocktail fetish, I decided to pair the cranberry grenadine with stuffing herbs, for a nicely fall-ish effect.

That initial time, I made the grenadine first, then added a handful of bay laurel, thyme and sage. After a few days' maceration in the fridge, the flavor was much more muted than I'd wanted. I figured out how to fix that: reverse the process. I had far more success with a batch made by macerating herbs in the raw juice for 48 hours, then heating and blending with the sugar, pomegranate molasses, and orange flower water. Another 12 hours or so in the fridge, with a fresh batch of herbs swapped in, and the flavors were nicely integrated, the thyme and sage popping right off, chased by the bright acidity of the fruit, with a dusky undercurrent from the bay. It was delicious, and exactly what I'd wanted.

It's delicious stirred into a glass of soda water, excellent paired with rye, and I can't wait to shake it into a Pink Lady (when I'm drinking again). I haven't done it yet (too easy), but I'm sure it makes one helluva Shirley Temple, especially with homemade ginger beer. Ditto with a Roy Rogers, maybe taking a spicy route like they do over at Downhouse.

As I said, I started down the grenadine path around Thanksgiving and, having been tasked with concocting a non-alcoholic beverage for the festivities at my in-laws' place, I decided to make my Thanksgiving-themed grenadine the star of the show. I wanted to make something simple, so that guests could (mostly) serve themselves.

A 50/50 blend of freshly squeezed orange juice and grenadine was tasty, but a bit sweet and in need of lengthening. A goodly splash of Tonic helped out with that, comprising about 50 percent of the total volume per serving. I also really liked the slight bitter edge it brought. Remember: layers. Unfortunately, it thinned things out a bit too much. Easily rectified by a dash or two of Bad Dog Sarsaparilla Bitters, depending on preference.

To serve, I pre-dosed individual glasses with bitters, and shook up a 50/50 blend of juice and syrup in a large carafe. A four-ounce pour from the carafe, followed by about four ounces of Tonic, all built in the glass, made for a quick and easy drink that found favor with drinkers young and old. One sister-in-law, in particular, loved it. She was surprised when I told her it had no booze, because "it seems just like a cocktail." That's exactly what we're going for, folks.

The Kids' Table

2oz Stuffing-Herb Infused Cranberry Grenadine 2oz Orange Juice Dsh Sarsaparilla Bitters 4oz Tonic Water, or to taste

Build all ingredients in whatever glass you have on hand, over ice if you want. Modify any/all of the quantities to suit your taste. Garnish with a slice of orange and a singed sage leaf, or with some cranberries, or not at all. This one was all about flexibility. I mean, there was gravy to be had ...

(Side note: another infatuation lately is burning ingredients/garnish. Here, a singed sage leaf brought the drink into the senses before it even hit the lips. It does smell a bit like an herb of an entirely different nature when burned, though...)


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