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.
In the Gentleman’s Companio, Charles Baker notes a recipe for this that involves adding egg whites to the sugar and water on the stove, then skimming off the foam until the mixture clarifies. It’s a very messy process which he of course describes as simple … But the result is a wonderfully viscous syrup without the chemicals of today’s “Gum Arabic.”
Andrea, That’s an interesting alternative. Do egg whites have the same emulsifying properties as real gum arabic preventing sugar crystals from forming? Certainly, the viscosity is the main reason we are doing this, but I would be concerned about shelf life. In any case, I am not sure I understand what you mean by chemicals. Technically, every bit of matter on earth is a “chemical” of some kind. Are you thinking that gum arabic powder is chemically processed or produced? The gum arabic product linked above is USDA certified organic, 100% pure acacia senegal. It’s a natural product comprised entirely… Read more »
I have made both kinds–the Baker egg white variety and the one with gum arabic. I prefer the second. I wish to make my sugar syrup without heat, so that the sugar doesn’t invert. So here’s my plan: mix the gum powder with the sugar first. This disperses it so that it will dissolve more easily. Then put the mixture into a jar, add the water, shake it real good, and shake it again every time I walk by until it’s all dissolved. It works, though it isn’t as fast or easy as using heat. Speaking of eggs though, one… Read more »
Paul, I think your idea about mixing the powdered gum right into the sugar for cold process (shaking with water) is very insightful! I can’t wait to try that! Tell me, what ratio of gum are you adding? I am thinking maybe a tablespoon or two per cup of sugar? That’s like an 8:1 ratio of dry ingredients. Then add, what, maybe 4 oz of water for a rich 2:1 syrup? The egg emulsion success is interesting too. It makes sense that gum could improve the results, but I hadn’t picked up on that yet. I’ll look for the effect… Read more »
Randy, last time I made it I used a 6:1 ratio of the dry ingredients. But I think 8:1 would work fine too and that’s what I plan to use in the next batch. You can use whatever sugar to water ratio you prefer, I used 3:1 but that means sometimes I have to interpolate when I’m following other people’s recipes. I think most published recipes assume a 2:1 syrup.
‘the chemicals of today’s “Gum Arabic.”‘ um… people have been using that stuff for over 4000 years. It oozes out of acacia trees, they just pick it off, dry it and grind it up.
I am totally going to try the cold process Paul recommended, if it doesn’t dissolve all the way I can always warm it up, right?
Anita, Paul’s method is the way to go. A few days ago I mixed up some simple syrup and then I just added some powdered gum Arabic. I sealed it, shook the bottle and stuck it in the fridge. There was a little glob still floating but a day later it was dissolved and perfect. It’s worth doing another post about how easy this can be.
Good timing…I’m just about to do a new batch too. I think I’ll take my own advice and use an 8:1 ratio of the dry ingredients and then a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water.
I have been filling a 375ml bottle with syrup and then adding a tablespoon or so of the gum. Works great and no fuss at all, even for a 1:1 syrup.
I am confused about Paul’s proportions. I would love to try this method, bu I can’t figure out how many parts of gum arabic, sugar, adn water are involved.
Randy, am I reading correctly that you made up a simple syrup at 8oz sugar to 4 oz water and then just dropped in 2 oz gum arabic?
So, 8 oz sugar dry mixed with 2 oz gum, into 4 oz water would be a good place to start?
That’s right, and syrup measurements usually refer to fluid ounces (volumes) for everything, even the dry ingredients.
Mike, you got it right: 8 oz sugar mixed with 2 oz gum, then dissolved in 4 oz water. I did make a new batch just that way, and it has been quite satisfactory.
I would like to make large quantities of gum syrup and then preserve it using a water bath canning method. Will this work with the gum in it? Can you boil the gum syrup without ill effects?
I suppose you could. I would try a test on a smaller scale to see if prolonged boiling will affect the gum. I have not used heat for some time now. I have been using a much easier cold process by mixing the gum with the dry sugar, then shaking with water until everything dissolves.