One of the joys of mixology, like many pursuits, is that it affords the cocktail enthusiast an opportunity to be creative. We’re not just talking about the exploration of drink recipes, although that is a big part of it. In many ways, the best rewards come from making homemade ingredients. One of the easiest and perhaps the most inevitable is simple syrup, and although you can buy a commercial product off-the-shelf, it’s so easy to make that buying it is rarely a consideration. After all, isn’t that why it has simple in the name?
It turns out that a more appropriate name for this product is simplified syrup. As you probably know, simple syrup is merely a combination of sugar and water, but it is based on a more traditional product that also contains gum arabic. Gum or gomme syrup is better than simple syrup for several reasons, but making it is slightly more involved which is why the gum is often omitted. Before we get into the actual recipe, we’d like to explain why you might want to try making gomme syrup yourself.
What is Gum Arabic?
You’ve seen it listed on candy wrappers and soda pop cans for years, but what exactly is this stuff? Gum arabic is a naturally occurring resin or hardened tree sap that is harvested from the acacia tree. It was historically cultivated in Arabia and east Asia. Technically, it’s a complex mixture of glycoproteins and polysaccharides that in addition to being edible, has several interesting and useful properties. When dissolved in water, gum arabic acts as a thickening agent to increase viscosity for use in everything from hard and gummy candy to lickable adhesives for stamps and envelopes. It is used as a binder in watercolor paints, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pyrotechnics, shoe polish—the list goes on and on. It is also recognized as a good source of dietary fiber to help counter digestive challenges.
Some of you are reading this and wondering what’s the point. Sugar syrup may be a key ingredient in many recipes, but why take something so easy and make it more complicated than it needs to be? The answer lies in the effect it has on the texture of cocktails, but until we tried it ourselves we didn’t fully appreciate it. Adding gum to your simple syrup has two main benefits. First, it acts as a stabilizer preventing the sugar in rich syrups from crystalizing. But more important is the effect it has on syrup viscosity. This is most obvious in cocktails like the Sazerac, or the Old Fashioned, but any drink sweetened with sugar will have a definite change in mouthfeel when made with gomme compared to the same drink made with simple. It’s similar though obviously not as pronounced as the smoothing effect of a protein emulsion (egg whites) without the foam, but it also affects how you taste the ingredients. Because of the added texture and reduced surface tension, cocktails feel more luscious and luxurious on the tongue and the flavors of spirits and liqueurs coat the mouth making them seem more flavorful. It’s hard to imagine this effect by descriptions alone, but now that we’ve tried it first-hand, we’ll be adding gum to all of our syrups from now on.
Now that you may be at least partially convinced to try it, where do you begin? First, you need to get yourself some gum arabic. In our experience over the past few years this has been somewhat challenging. Initially, we purchased raw granules which was a mistake. We have read similar accounts of folks who take these nuggets and break them up into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, but ours had natural impurities like tree bark and other brown bits of crud we didn’t want in our syrup. We decided that using granules was not the best plan, at least not for the granules we had.
We then started looking at specialty shops and online vendors for candy making supplies or molecular gastronomy. You can find what you need at such places, but often in small quantities and inflated prices. That’s when we realized we should have been looking for a dietary fiber supplement. When marketed this way gum arabic is often less expensive, pure food-grade and finely ground. It is a white or off-white powder that can be dissolved in coffee and sprinkled over spaghetti. We found this product online, but you may find it in health food stores or herb outlets. We’ve also heard that Asian markets are a possible source. It may be labeled as 100% acacia or senegal powder and described as a fiber supplement for patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
2 oz gum arabic
2 oz water
8 oz sugar
4 oz water
Start by making the gum mixture using two ounces (by volume) of powdered gum arabic. Add this to two ounces of near boiling water, stirring to dissolve. Allow the gum mixture to cool, then gather and skim off the foamy residue with a spoon.
While the gum mixture is cooling, make a rich simple syrup using eight ounces of sugar to four ounces of water. Heat to dissolve the sugar if you like. When cool, add the gum to the simple syrup and stir to combine.
Bottle finished gomme syrup.
When mixing the gum powder with hot water, you will notice that it tends to form a gluey mass which eventually dissolves, but it leaves a sticky layer of foamy residue on the surface. You may be able to let it sit overnight—you certainly want any solids to break down and dissolve—but you can also skim the surface to remove the thin layer of foam once it cools by gathering the mass together with a spoon and lifting it out. You are left with a liquid gum additive which you can now mix together with a rich 2:1 simple syrup. We tend to make syrup using a cold process that involves a lot of shaking in a sealed jar. This can take a long time with a rich syrup, so heating the water to dissolve the sugar makes the process a lot easier. When you are done, you should have silky smooth gomme syrup ready for your favorite cocktail.
To test your results, we recommend making something you already enjoy with simple syrup to make a decent comparison. You could also wait for our upcoming post on the Lion’s Tail, but in the mean time, here’s a fantastic riff on a classic to get you started. It’s called the Black Walnut Old Fashioned by Toby Maloney and it often appears on the menu at the Bradstreet Crafthouse in Minneapolis, MN. It also makes it into regular rotation at our house:
Black Walnut Old Fashioned by Toby Maloney
2 oz bourbon (Toby uses Bulleit)
.25 oz rich (2:1) gomme syrup
Nocino (rinse), homemade or Nux Alpina walnut liqueur
9 drops orange bitters
Rinse a rocks glass with Nux Alpina, then drop in a large chunk of ice or sphere. Build the cocktail in a separate mixing glass. Stir the bourbon, gomme syrup and bitters with ice, then strain over ice sphere in walnut rinsed glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.