So, friends, why herbaceous simple syrups for the holidays, you might ask?
Whether you’re hosting, bringing something to a gathering, gifting or spending time at home by yourself or with a partner or three (or a fluffy, furry companion), some of your more unusual simple syrups are a way to make make a beverage just that much more special and yes, tasty. They imbue a subtle flavor and can be used to make non-alcoholic sodas and mocktails just as easily as they can be mixed into alcoholic cocktails or drizzled as a sweetener in hot tea. Also, depending on whether you grow (such as in a container) or, perhaps, forage your ingredients, the cost of creating some of these compared to their resulting flavor is quite low. You’ll need sugar, water, and your preferred steeping ingredients. What follows are some suggestions for excellent simple syrups for the holidays and ways you can use them!
How To Make Simple Syrups in Preparation for the Holidays
For most of the following, I recommend taking the syrup off the heat before adding your herbs, fruits, what-have-you. This is to preserve the flavor as well as any healthful compounds, all of which can be affected by too much heat. To make your standard simple syrup, use one part water to one part sugar. Make as much simple syrup as you like, but keep this ratio. I usually add about three cups water to three cups sugar and that makes plenty of one flavor. Add your sugar and water to a sauce pan and put on the stovetop to boil. Bring to a boil, stir, and take off the heat. Voila! You’ve made simple syrup. The advantage here is that now you can sweeten cold drinks!
Mint Simple Syrup OR Mint + Other Herb(s) Because Honestly Your Holiday Simple Syrups SHOULD Taste Like Candy Canes
If you’re anything like me, you have far too much mint growing in your yard, along with far too much lemon balm. Did you save any for your holiday simple syrups or cookies or teas or what-have-you? Take some of those items and fashion yourself a refreshing and seasonally appropriate simple syrup! This goes great as a standalone soda, but also is splendid mixed into any kind of iced tea. You could also use these to make mint juleps! I like to add just absolute handfuls of fresh mint leaves to a couple cups of syrup and steep for hours upon hours to make this. Strain and refrigerate!
Rosemary Simple Syrup
This is one of my favorite simple syrups for the holidays. It adds an earthiness and an astringency to any cocktail or mocktail. For one of my favorite mocktails, pour strongly steeped hibiscus tea over ice, add a squeezed quarter lime, club soda OR tonic water (my preference) and rosemary simple syrup to taste. (You can also add a liquor to this or a mock liquor. Gin or a gin substitute would be great.) I also wonder how rosemary simple syrup would play if added as a sweetener to desserts like cookies! I would say I use 3-4 tablespoons of dried rosemary and steep for about two hours to make this syrup, although depending on your tastes, you may want to check it periodically so it is not too strong for you. If you can do fresh rosemary, that’s even better! Save some to garnish your drinks, too. Strain and refrigerate!
Horehound + Fennel (or Just Fennel) Simple Syrup
So, horehound is a lovely leafy herb that in the past has been used in candy. Fennel, you might recognize from a variety of cuisines or from eating the root in things such as salad.
Not only does this now start to fall into the category of firmly being a digestif due to fennel’s gut-calming properties, but it also has that old-fashioned anise-y, licorice-esque candy taste down pat. Now you can drink something that will make you feel like you just stumbled into a candy shop circa the 1940’s, complete with tap-dancing black and white Old Hollywood stars. I love this with just soda water — or make a fennel and peppercorn sazerac or campari and fennel aperitif. For mocktails, I found this recipe for a seasonally appropriate blood orange and fennel spritzer. This simple syrup might also be good on top of vanilla ice cream or baked into shortbread! I also have been known to enjoy this in iced coffee. I prefer to use fresh fennel root and horehound leaves, and to add these generously before steeping for a few hours, but you could also use fennel seeds if those are not available! Strain and refrigerate!
Lavender Simple Syrup
You’re gay, lavender is gay, and lavender simple syrup is absolutely the HEIGHT of queering your simple syrup lineup okay? If you’ve been to a small coffeeshop at any point in the last couple years, you might have seen this on display. And sure, while lavender is maybe a springy, summery flavor, its queerness, like yours, remains in full bloom year-round. You can obtain dried lavender from tea companies online or might find it in your spice or tea section if you have the kind of grocery store that stocks it. Lavender simple syrup has the advantage of being excellent in coffee and lattes, both hot and chilled. I found this “Christmas” sparkling lavender cocktail, which could easily be made into a mocktail by substituting non-alcoholic sparkling wine for the brut. You could also make a lavender bee’s knees cocktail, for which you could substitute a shot of juniper soda for the gin. I honestly also think you could get creative with some kind of “sugar plum” mock or cocktail with lavender simple syrup. When making lavender simple syrup, I let the simple cool for 5-10 minutes before adding the lavender and then I steep it for just an hour or two, checking frequently. I prefer the liquid to be less hot when steeping in order to preserve the lavender’s delicate color. Over-steeping can lead to bitterness, which is why I suggest frequent taste-testing. I prefer to make sure that the surface of the simple is coated with lavender buds, to give you an idea of the amount I am using. Strain and refrigerate!
Violet Simple Syrup
Again, it’s a springtime flavor, but if you are in such a position as to be able to obtain fresh or dried violet flowers, then I recommend making this simple syrup for the holidays! Each spring, I pick from the wild violets I’ve gently encouraged to take over my backyard over the years and make this. The key is to control your heat. Much like the lavender above, you do not want to add the flowers to the syrup while it is too hot. I recommend letting it cool for a full ten minutes before adding the violets. Test the syrup with your finger. It should be still warm, but touchable. If it stings, let it cool a few more minutes before adding the flowers.
This is because the color of the violet syrup is one of its most interesting qualities. If you manage this right, you’ll come away with a lightly purple-colored simple syrup. I prefer to add as many violet flowers as the syrup can hold while steeping in order to encourage as vibrant of a color as possible.
Now, here’s the neat thing — the syrup will change color! This makes violet simple syrup an excellent lineup to your repertoire of simple syrups, especially if children or adults with childlike wonder are going to be present. To change the syrup to a light pink color, add an acid, such as lemon juice. This can be used to make a light lemonade-like sparkling drink for kids. Be sure to wait to add the acidic element until everyone is watching! Now, it will ALSO change color the other way, with a base. If you add tonic water, for example, it’s going to deepen into a greenish blueish color. You can use this to make a violet gin and tonic, or substitute the gin for a mock liquor to make a mocktail. Violet simple syrup, I think, would also go great with tea, especially if paired with a spread of festive desserts. You could strain it or leave the flowers in because they’re pretty!
AND YOU GOTTA TRY MAKING SPRUCE SIMPLE SYRUP FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Okay, spruce simple syrup + the holidays are a match made under a bough of a holly in a candlelit clearing of a winter forest. If you live in a relatively temperate climate or colder, you should be able to forage spruce. The nice thing about spruce trees is that unlike firs, there isn’t a super deadly tree (the yew) that they can be mistaken for. It’s also really hard to mix up pine trees with anything else if you know what you’re looking for. So, a handy, dandy breakdown of how to identify spruce and also pine, both of which are super edible. Like you can eat basically any part of these trees (properly prepared! Please don’t just go out there and start chomping!), and pine and spruce needles are high in vitamin C too boot. I’m also going to add a couple of links to identifying yew because I really don’t want you all eating yew. Yew is extremely deadly. Positively ID-ing spruce and pine should keep you safe, but still, it’s good to know what you’re also looking to avoid.
Pine trees are relatively easy to identify because their needles are long, thin and grow out in bunches of 2, 3 or 5. If you see this happening, it’s a pine. Pine cones are also woodier than spruce or fir cones.
Spruce trees can be identified best by their needles. They have needles that are individually connected to the twig they’re growing off of. This is in contrast to pine, but similar to fir (and yew). HOWEVER, if you have a spruce, the needles are going to be sharply pointed and multi-sided, which means that unlike fir or yew needles, they should roll easily between thumb and forefinger. Spruce cones also hang down (fir cones point up).
Yew (POISON — NOT FOR EATING)
Don’t eat yew, y’all! Or boxwood! If you cannot positively identify a conifer, don’t eat it, okay? Unless you’re some kind of tree expert. Here is a video about identifying yew, and a very helpful article that helps you identify yew versus its lookalikes. Please use these to stay away from yew and stay safe!
Making and Enjoying Spruce Simple Syrup for the Holidays
Okay, now that we are prepared to not poison ourselves but to instead get a healthy dose of vitamin C, let’s talk about what I did! I took my gardening clippers, and carefully clipped about a gallon, volume-wise, of spruce branches. I brought them home, washed them carefully, using the Trader Joe’s pesticide-removing vegetable wash and rinsing thoroughly because, especially when you’re foraging, you want to make sure you’re not mixing in any little bugs!
Then I made about six cups of the syrup (half sugar, half water), let it cool for about five minutes, and steeped the branches in the pot in the syrup for about two hours, stirring occasionally and flipping the branches. I think next time I’ll steep it longer and chop up the branches more finely to produce an even more strongly flavored syrup. I strained through a metal mesh filter, but if specs freak you out, you might want to use a coffee filter. The result is wintry, nutty, woody and scrumptious.
This syrup would be an excellent addition to coffee and tea, according to taste (I am having some in a cup of coffee as we speak). I also added it to soda water to make a spruce soda and it was SO GOOD PEOPLE. Finally, while the obvious liquor for mixing a drink with this is gin, I think that a smoky whiskey cocktail, like this variation on a manhattan (sub simple syrup for the pine liquor) could be great! You could also use this to flavor martinis, and freak people out in a good way by garnishing with a spruce twig (that you washed)! For a festive mocktail, add a shot of spruce simple syrup to a cocktail glass of your choosing with either cherry or cranberry juice, top with sparkling water, and serve with a cocktail cherry and spruce twig on top — you could even add a sugared rim if you’re fancy.
There you have it — those are six simple syrups to elevate your holiday drink game. Honestly, I really hope that I get you all to start eating Christmas trees. That would really be something, wouldn’t it? (Probably do not actually eat your Christmas tree. Who knows what pesticides they spray trees intended for display.) Tell me what you plan to do with the magic of herbaceous simple syrups this holigay season in the comments!