Grenadine syrup is an awkward ingredient. There are interesting drinks that call for quite large doses of the stuff, yet mixing up one of these in the average bar is likely to result in the grenadine being the nastiest single ingredient in the mix. Who wants to adulterate quality spirits with a vaguely fruity, artificial version of what was once a natural pomegranate syrup?
Some brands are truly shocking. Price is not a bad guide, with the cheapest often being the worst. However, even pricier options like Fees Brothers are not necessarily good. I have a bottle of Fees Brothers at hand now, and besides not tasting very natural, to me it tastes distinctly of cherry. The list of ingredients is not informative, just listing various flavorings. Some commercial brands are reasonable though. I think Monin includes a little pomegranate juice (around 15% from memory), so I guess it is not a bad choice. Having said that, I believe the formula for Monin syrups varies among markets, with the U.S. versions sometimes being inferior to those sold in Europe. Before buying a bottle of grenadine I would recommend taking a look at the list of ingredients to see what it is made of. Does it contain pomegranate juice?
Some suggest using pomegranate molasses (sometimes labeled pomegranate syrup) in cocktails. I do not recommend this. This stuff really is a molasses like product, being thick, grainy, and extremely sour. While it has plenty of sugar, the emphasis is on the sourness. It is extremely concentrated and tends to be a dark-brown, almost black color. Looking at it you would never confuse it with grenadine. Pomegranate molasses can be interesting stuff to play with if you are unfamiliar with how processed pomegranates can taste, but it belongs in the kitchen, not the bar. It is great in marinades, sauces, etc. I have heard of people using this stuff as a grenadine substitute in drinks. This seems like a crazy manifestation of anti-commercial-grenadine prejudice to me. Sure the commercial grenadines are bad, but using a sour brown gunk as an alternative? There is just no similarity between grenadine syrup and pomegranate molasses. The former provides sweetness together with pomegranate taste, while the latter provides sourness together with pomegranate taste. They are designed to achieve completely different things.
A pomegranate juicer in action in the market in Kashgar
Given the difficulty of buying good grenadine and the lack of substitutes, it makes sense to make your own. Making my own grenadine has been a bit of an obsession since I took a trip around East Turkestan (the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Northwest China) and found freshly squeezed pomegranate juice was ubiquitous as a roadside thirst quencher. Drinking the fresh juice gave me an idea of what grenadine could be if only it was made properly. The juice was sour, sweet, and tanniny, with quite a robust flavor. The intensity of the flavor is reflected in the fact it is often sold in quite small glasses, containing only 100 ml or so. As I wandered the streets drinking the stuff, true grenadine seemed tantalizingly close and yet very far away – the more so since the region suffers a shortage of cocktail bars. Fubar in Wulumuqi has a great line up of beers, but its martini glasses gather dust.
I have since tried three different methods of making grenadine, and have now found a method I am happy with. My experiments took me through the following three methods:
1 – Adding sugar to commercial pomegranate juice to make a juice flavored syrup: take ½ cup of bottled pomegranate juice, heat gently on the stove, add a scant 1 cup sugar (slightly less since juice already contains some sugar), stir to dissolve sugar, briefly cook, cool and use.
2 – Cooking pomegranate seeds in simple syrup: make a cold process 2:1 simple syrup by mixing 1 cup of sugar and ½ cup of water (using a pulse blender for the mixing makes this easy), cut a pomegranate into quarters and remove seeds (do this in a bowl of water and you will find the seeds sink while the white pith floats), place seeds in a saucepan with the syrup and gently simmer for 30 minutes until mixture forms a slightly thickened syrup*, add red food coloring to deepen color (recommended), strain, cool and use.
3 – Mashing pomegranate seeds to extract the juice, adding sugar and water, and cooking into a syrup: seed a pomegranate as described above, place seeds in a saucepan and lightly mash with a potato masher to extract most of the juice (you only need to burst the pods around the seeds, not crush the seeds themselves), add 1 cup sugar and ½ cup water, gently heat while stirring until sugar is completely dissolved, simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes into a thick syrup, add red food coloring if desired, strain, cool and use.
After trying the above three approaches I found an interesting recipe for a fourth method (read about it here at All the Marmalade). This method is similar to method 3 except that the mashed seeds are marinated overnight with the sugar to let the flavor develop. Another difference from method 3 is useing two pomegranates where I used just one. This should mean a more intense flavor and likely no need for added food coloring. Finally, the cooking is done at a low temperature and for a shorter time.
4 – The process for method 4, the marinating method, is basically as follows: seed two pomegranates and place seeds in a bowl with 1 cup of sugar; mash seeds and sugar together to release the juice and dissolve the sugar; rest overnight in the refrigerator; remove seeds by straining into a saucepan; add ½ cup water and gently heat for a few minutes to kill any bacteria. Personally, I think cooking for a little longer may still be a good idea.
This fourth method looks very promising, but due to a lack of pomegranates in the shops since finding that recipe I will have to leave it for my next batch. Of the three approaches I have tested I recommend method 3.
Method 1 simply just produces an extremely sweetened fruit juice. It is OK if you are in a hurry, and better than most commercial brands, but still not great. The limited cooking in method 1 also means the syrup is not especially thick. I think a little thickness is desirable. Method 2 is an improvement on method 1, mainly because it extracts some flavor from the seeds. The seeds have a hard-to-describe, slightly nutty or vegetal taste, and for me they really improve the syrup. You eat the seeds when you eat a pomegranate, so surely grenadine syrup should also capture their taste. The weakness of method 2 is that the juice tends to remain with the seeds rather than flowing into the syrup. Although the syrup still picks up plenty of flavor, it lacks acidity and natural color. Method 3 is the clear winner, producing a syrup with a natural purplish/red color (best boosted with red food coloring if you want attractive drinks), and a full pomegranate flavor, including both the acidic juice and the seeds. Method 4 will hopefully be even better than method 3.
Well made grenadine becomes not merely a sweetener but a flavor in its own right, making grenadine cocktails a field for serious exploration. The question then becomes what cocktails to try it in.
* Pay attention not to overcook the syrup or it will start to form candy. You want to cook it to the stage where it no longer dissolves instantly when you drop a little into a bowl of cold water. However, it should still dissolve easily when stirred. You do not want to cook it to the stage where it forms a soft mass that holds it shape even when stirred. If it gets to this stage you are on the road to making candy. Adding a little water will rescue things. If you demand grenadine that mixes a little easier then simply don’t cook for as long. Personally I don’t find requiring an extra couple of stirs when mixing a drink to be a big deal, but then I don’t mix hundreds of drinks every night.