** The giveaway has ended. Congrats to the winner: Amy! **
OK guys, are you more curious about the giveaway, or the word “burnt” in a cocktail? (Just kidding, I know it’s the giveaway! And if it isn’t, it should be, because it’s an awesome one.) Back in December, Kevin Liu of the geeked-out collaborative food blog Science Fare got in touch with me about a cocktail science book he was writing called Craft Cocktails at Home. We spoke a bit about my work with shrubs, and I even had a chance to take a peek through an early draft and provide a few tips on the layout of the book itself. As I was skimming through the text, I continually found myself pausing to read bits here and there because, frankly, the content is fascinating. I have been trying to think of a way to best describe this book, but I really don’t think I can do much better than the tagline on the homepage: “Think of it as your PhD in Drinking.” Seriously, this book covers it all. The basics you need to start your home bar. Breakdowns of the roles of flavor and mouthfeel in drinks. Filtering methods for homemade infusions. Making a DIY cold-smoker for $20. How to make crystal-clear ice. (I bet you never even thought about that one before, but now you really want to know, right?) The list goes on. (Oh, and[!] for those of you that are interested in DIY bitters, there’s an awesome section where Kevin and Eva of Adventures in Cooking taste-tested a variety of bittering agent extracts and gave their interpretations of the flavor profiles. Super-duper cool, especially if you want to experiment with building your own bitters instead of following a recipe.) And, of course, there are a variety of recipes for drinks, tinctures, and syrups. In short, this is one hell of a book, and a pioneering publication in the field of cocktail geekery. And I have one to give away to a lucky reader!
OK, now before I get into this mysterious, delicious burnt cocktail, let’s go over the rules of the giveaway. To enter, simply leave a comment below telling us about one of the best and/or most unique drinks you’ve had. (I had a mezcal cocktail this past summer that had a giant smoked ice cube in it. Never before have I felt so hyper-aware of the role that scent plays in our enjoyment of food and drink.) Also, if you’d rather just ask Kevin a specific question, he’ll be keeping tabs on the post and will happily chime in to answer (and your question will of course be counted as an entry). The giveaway will end on Wednesday at 11:59pm. We do ask that only U.S.-residents over the age of 18 participate. And the randomly chosen winner will be announced on Saturday, March 9th. Good luck!
Also, attention Kindle owners: There’s actually a promotion running until tonight (Saturday) where you can download the ebook for free! You can snag your free copy on Amazon up until 11:59pm. And, for those of you that might not have have a Kindle or the patience for a giveaway, you can purchase the paperback version here.
And now, let’s talk burnt cocktails. Or burnt sugar syrup, to be exact. This is one of many recipes you’ll find in Craft Cocktails at Home. In the book, this is used in conjunction with other ingredients to create “instant aged” liquors, and also as a component of bitters. I first discovered this on the book’s website, when Kevin did a post called “Caramel syrup: a kick-ass way to add depth to cocktails,” and wrapped it up with a burnt whiskey sour. In the book, Kevin details creating either a burnt sugar syrup or a caramel syrup. Both are made by heating sugar and then adding water once the sugar reaches a certain temperature. For caramel syrup, you add the water before the sugar reaches 350° (the temperature at which sugar burns, smoke alarms start blaring, and cats start running for cover — trust me on that one). For burnt sugar syrup, you let that scary hot sugar blaze right on past 350° into lovely charred smokey blackness, then add the water.
I actually made both syrups, just to see what they were both all about. As you can imagine, the burnt sugar syrup is a bit more prominent than the caramel syrup, and stands up nicely in drinks that welcome the complexities of a bitter, smokey flavor. I used the caramel syrup for the photographs (because I liked the color), but I really enjoyed the burnt sugar syrup in the whiskey sour. It makes for a lovely, complex drink, and it’s a welcome addition to a cocktail that can sometimes assault you with a heavy tart/sweetness (depending on how it’s made).
The following recipe was borrowed from Craft Cocktails at Home, with a few of my own additional notes on working with sugar below.
Burnt Sugar Syrup or Caramel Syrup
- 220g granulated sugar
- 1.5 cups water
Heat the sugar in a stainless saucepan over medium heat. Stir with a chopstick every 30 seconds or so. You will see the sugar melt over time. Once the sugar becomes fully liquid, it will become progressively darker very quickly.
For caramel syrup, the syrup is as hot as it needs to be once everything goes liquid. For burnt sugar syrup, the syrup is done when it starts smoking and releasing burnt odors.
Quickly pour in the water and stir rapidly. Be careful: the water will steam and may sputter a bit. Both the sugar and water will be crazy hot. If the sugar forms hard chunks, leave the pan with water on medium heat until everything combines into a smooth syrup.
Notes from me: If you aren’t used to working with heated sugar, the process might seem a little intimidating. And for good reason too, because that stuff gets HOT, and it can do some serious damage if you aren’t careful. Be sure to heat the sugar in a heavy bottomed pan with high sides. When your sugar begins to boil, the mixture will bubble up quite a lot, and the last thing you want is molten sugar spilling over onto everything.
If you haven’t caramelized sugar before, watch some videos online to get a sense of what happens visually. Things will seem to progress rather slowly at first, as the sugar at the bottom of your pan begins to melt and brown a little, chunks begin to form as you stir, and then eventually, everything dissolves. At this point, you’ll start to notice some tiny little bubbles, then a little bit of smoking, then some more serious bubbles (like the bubbling that would precede a monster rising from the depths of a swamp, if that makes sense). This is the point when sh*t starts to get real, and things progress very quickly. Foamy bubbles will start to form, and the sugar will begin to grow rapidly in size. Soon, it will stop growing, and the bubbles will begin to take on a “thicker” look (I can’t really think of a better word than that). This is the point when you have around 10–15 seconds before the sugar hits 350° and totally burns.
For this recipe in particular, I made caramel syrup by adding the water right when the sugar hit the aforementioned “thicker” bubble point. (Kevin’s recipe notes that you don’t even need to let the sugar cook this much — you can instead simply add the water once everything has dissolved, and before it begins to bubble up. I’m not sure if letting it cook longer made any difference in flavor. It might be slightly richer, but I can’t say for sure. If you aren’t comfortable with testing your hot sugar observation skills, add the water at the earlier point.) And for the burnt syrup, I waited another 15 seconds or so, until the sugar began to take on a very dark color. The burning of sugar happens very quickly. You’ll think to yourself, “I wonder if this is going to burn soon?” And the next thing you know, the room will be filled with smoke. Which brings me to another point: If you have a range hood, use it. It also doesn’t hurt to disable your smoke detectors while you’re doing this (especially if you’re making the burnt syrup).
If you make the burnt syrup, stir carefully after you’ve added the water. The sugar will probably seize, and you’ll want to do a little bit of stirring to help it dissolve. And with the water, it will slosh and splatter much more easily.
Above all, caution and planning will make working with heated sugar an easy and gratifying experience. Have everything you will need (in this case, the water) at the ready, as you don’t want to walk away from the pan once you’ve begun.
Burnt Whiskey Sour
(from the CCaH blog; adapted with further suggestions from Kevin)
makes 2 drinks
- 4 oz light Canadian Whiskey
- 2 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 1.5 oz burnt sugar syrup
- 4-6 dashes angostura bitters
- 4-6 drops 3:1 saline solution (3 parts water to 1 part salt [by weight, preferably])
- 1/2 of an egg white*
* You can leave out the egg white if you wish, but it adds a wonderful body to the drink. If you need a little more convincing, I’ll leave that to Adam.
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled rocks glass. (You can add the traditional maraschino cherry for garnish if you like, but I’m with Kevin on preferring it sans cherry.)