Cocktails With Something Extra: Making the Most of Seasonal Fruit in Houston

Inspiration comes in various guises, many of them surprising. Sometimes a taste or a smell or a song on the radio provides the spark. Sometimes, it's the culmination of a dozen unfinished thoughts, flitting around in the back of your brain until something catalyzes them into a useful whole. That's how I found myself lopping a branch from the eucalyptus tree in my front yard, waving it at my wife excitedly while babbling about strawberries.

A conversation with a friend had reminded me that it was strawberry season in Texas, and by God I was going to make the most of it. Couple that with my fascination with the eucalyptus tree in front of my house, and a growing interest in using seasonal produce in my home cocktails, and I knew just what to do. Just as a batch of jam can help you hold onto the fleeting beauty of a bushel of berries, so, too, can syrup. It's essentially jam in liquid form.

I wanted to preserve as much of the fresh flavor of the berries as possible, so I started with a maceration rather than boiling the berries or combining them with hot syrup. Sixteen ounces of berries, 12 ounces of sugar and a few sprigs of eucalyptus went into a bowl. I mashed everything (gently) together with a potato masher, covered the bowl and stashed it in the fridge overnight. The next day, much of the liquid had migrated from the berries into the sugar (God bless osmosis). The resulting syrup was sweet and bright, with the pure and sunny flavor of the berries augmented by the interesting menthol notes of the eucalyptus. 

Looking at my strainer, though, I decided I wasn't quite done with the berries; they still had plenty of life left in them. I decided to treat them much like classical stock making, making a sort of fruity remouillage. The solids went into a saucepan along with 8 oz each of sugar and water. I brought the pan to a boil over high heat, turned the heat down to maintain a lively simmer, and cooked the liquid down for about ten minutes. I tasted it. It was richer than the other syrup, with a dense, cooked quality that was appealing. I could have used the two syrups separately, but I decided to treat it like a true remouillage, combining them into one syrup. This allowed me to retain much of the fresh flavor of the berries (thanks to the first, uncooked syrup) while adding deeper notes from the cooked version and improving yield at the same time (the macerated syrup had only resulted in about 8 oz of syrup). 

Over the next few weeks, I used the syrup in dang near anything. My wife took to adding a bit to a glass of sparkling wine. My kids splashed it into soda water for homemade strawberry soda and drizzled it onto piles of shaved ice. I mixed it with pretty much everything in my liquor cabinet. Here are a few of my favorites: 

The very first thought I had when making the syrup was sherry. Especially as the weather warms and my drinking turns to lower-alcohol options, sherry finds its way into my mixing glass. It brings tremendous flavor in a lighter package than liquor, and it loves fruit. 

I've long enjoyed the bittersweet punch of Campari up against the bone-dry, yeasty elegance of fino sherry, and a couple of iterations followed that path. The first made use of the same ice crusher my kids used for their slushies, depositing a drift of the cold stuff on top of a stirred mixture of Campari, Manzanilla Sherry, Old Grand-Dad 114 and strawberry-eucalyptus syrup. It was refreshingly fruity, with just a hint of acidity set against a backdrop of spicy booze and bitterness. I didn't write down the recipe, much to my shame, but I can tell you that it was top-heavy with sherry, the Campari and bourbon only offering fortification. 

Campari also played a role in what was likely my favorite version so far (I say so far because my wife has already demanded another batch of syrup). Following my wife's lead with sparkling wine (let's be honest, there are few cocktail concepts that don't work with a splash of bubbles), I shook together more Campari, a bit of lime, some delightfully nutty Mellow Corn whiskey and a bit of strawberry-eucalyptus syrup (three quarters of an ounce of each), then topped it with a bit of dry sparkling wine. 

There were many other drinks not mentioned here. Some, I'd make again. Some not. The two above, though, I will definitely make again, if for no other reason than that they were fun. I'm a big fan of milk punch. I don't think it gets anywhere near enough credit. One thing I love about it is the smoothing quality of dairy. It's a great way to take big, aggressive flavors and tame them without stripping them down and rendering them thin. Instead, a good dose of dairy fat turns spirits into grown-up milkshakes. That's how I think of milk punch. As an example, the Angostura version above uses a full two ounces of the stuff. Rather than being bitter and aggressive, it is delicate and pleasantly spiced, with a fruity undercarriage from the strawberry. Of the two, it was actually the favorite. 

We're just about out of strawberry season, so I'm sure I'll be making one last batch. Like I said, this syrup is a great way to keep the bounty of strawberries around for just a bit longer. After that, I think I'll be turning my attention to peaches and blueberries. It's probably time to perfect my Southern Empire Smash, for example. Built around peaches, bourbon and the spicy Czech liqueur Becherovka, it's a boozy but refreshing concoction that highlights peaches quite well. As for the blueberries, I'm already thinking of a syrup infused with serrano and cilantro. I'll let you know how it turns out. 

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall