How-To: Cordials | Varyer

How-To: Cordials

An expert highlights the sustainable and experimental nature of DIY botanical elixirs

What’s a cordial?

It could be a Brach’s chocolate-covered cherry or a Cadbury creme egg. Both of those super sweet bonbons use invertase, an enzyme derived from yeast, to convert a sugary frosting-like fondant center into an oozy liquid.

But this is not that.

A symmetrical illustration that resembles fruit.

Soaking the cherries in bourbon or 151 proof rum has the same outcome as adding invertase—alcohol also breaks down fondant within a few days to oozy boozy effect.

Better, but still not really worth talking about.

“Cor” means ‘heart’— cordials originated as medicinal tonics that stimulate the organs to improve circulation. Now, cordials can be a synonym for liqueurs, that rainbow of often-times dusty bottles on the back bar ranging from the sublime (Chartreuse) to the unparalleled (Hpnotiq) to the ridiculous (Watermelon Pucker).


Now we are getting somewhere.

A cordial can also be non-alcoholic and not be a chocolate covered cherry. Stay with me here, because cordials can make a lot of things taste infinitely more delicious.

And you can make them. Very simply. With garbage even.

Why would you want to make sticky liquids out of garbage? As the prep cook told me a few years back when I asked him why he was eating a dish of pilfered clams, “because they’re good.”

because they're good because they're good

Think of grenadine, the pomegranate red, non-alcoholic heartbeat of so many cocktails. How do you make Tequila and OJ look and taste like a sunrise without grenadine? How else do you make ginger ale or coke from a soda gun into a kiddie cocktail?

But grenadine is a terrible example—the reason you want to buy or make cordials is for the intense flavor they bring to a beverage or dessert. (If a Roy Rogers really tasted like pomegranate, would a kiddie actually drink it?)

What if you are making a rhubarb pie and you have a bunch of rhubarb trimmings? Can you shove them in a jar of gin with some sugar, pink peppercorns and orange peel and serve a cordial a month later? Yes, yes you can.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick your flavor.

Most fruits, herbs, flowers, and spices can be infused, including scraps you might normally toss in the compost bin. Freeze dried berries add intense color and flavor—think cassis or Chambord for inspiration. Pineapple husks are another terrific place to start.

Go French and make elixirs for all seasons. Elderflower cordial. Vin de Pêche from peach leaves and pits expressed in boxed rosé. Crème de cacao using toasted cacao nibs macerated in vodka. Ex-pat chef David Lebovitz’s 2020 book Drinking French is a fantastic reference for all things apertif. Or try Limoncello or one of the other cellos.

Did you go a little nuts at the farmer’s market and buy too many ripe strawberries? Quarter them and throw them in a jar of Campari for a week or three. You made a cordial! Subbed into your usual negroni recipe, Strawberry Campari makes a gorgeous version. Try it with tequila blanco instead of gin for impressive effect.

Pick your vessel.

Mason jars and the like are cute but unnecessary. Old Ragu pasta sauce jars work just as well. Bigger batches might call for an investment in the professional kitchen standard, square plastic containers called Cambros. But start with the old jars.

Pick your base and your method.

Cordials can start with alcohol or not. Todd Appel, who makes cordials (Appel’s grapefruit cordial is a bar essential, his lavender cola is not to be missed) for retail and restaurants on Chicago’s Far North Side, does without. When you make cordials, he says, “you are creating ‘liquid sugar’—making sugar soluble in a cold drink,” at the highest concentration possible to maximize flavor.

“My definition of a cordial,” says Appel, “is a citrus based syrup”—the simplest version is equal parts lemon juice and sugar, dissolved together at room temperature.

The next level up, though, using the peels (aka garbage), tastes even better. Wash your filthy citrus. Peel the fruits with a Y-peeler, leaving most of the white pith behind. Squeeze all the naked fruit, then strain the juice into a measuring cup. Place juice in a pot and add an equal measure of sugar. Slowly slowly stir and bring up the temperature (but do not let the mixture simmer or boil) to dissolve. Allow the syrup to cool, then add your peels and steep for a day.

A symmetrical illustrated design.

Or, take all those peels (before you add them to the syrup—thick skins like lemon and grapefruit work best) and toss and muddle them with some granulated sugar, then leave them to steep fragrantly at room temperature. The next day, VOILA. You’ll see a bunch of syrupy citrus oil in the bottom of the container. You just made oleo saccharum, you nerd. Strain out the solids (press hard to extract the most oil) and add the extraction to your syrup for exponentially explosive flavor. Pros make it (often in a vacuum sealer) as a super flavorful and sustainable use of otherwise discarded skins from juicing.

Infusing vodka, gin, grain alcohol, wine, vermouth, brandy, or bourbon can kickstart cordial production. Also known as infusion or maceration, simply pack your ingredients in a jar and cover with the liquor of choice. Sugar can be added now or later, in syrup form. Alcohol is a powerful solvent, and will extract the essential colors, aromas, and flavors in 3-4 weeks in a cool dark place.

A symmetrical illustrated design of wavy lemons.

If you get really good at this, (or if you are really good at getting your friends to do your projects for you) you could have a cordial-making party. Everyone brings a jar and an ingredient. You provide the sugar. Everyone peels and juices and mixes and shares and you end up with enough cordial to fill a bathtub (but don’t do that, just jar it all up and send everyone home to macerate).

Pick your drink.

Don’t be bashful. You know you’ve always secretly wanted mango in your mimosa (hint: use freeze dried mango in your vodka infusion). Make your old-fashioneds new again with some spiced vanilla syrup. Splash around the spritz theme with some custom fruity wine coolers. Don’t forget that strawberry negroni. Or just pour that cordial in a tiny tinted glass you inherited from your Auntie, call it a digestivo, and relax.

A wavy illustration of peaches.