There are lots of different ways you can sweeten a drink, from using liqueurs to plain sugar to more exotic sweeteners like agave syrup or cane juice. But one once-ubiquitous sweetener (when I say “once,” I’m talking handlebar-mustache-and-spats times) is almost never seen anymore (and that “almost” is pretty generous): gomme syrup.
Hold on–sure, there’s lots of simple sugar syrup used in drinks, way too much many bartenders would agree–but that’s not true gomme. Way back before Prohibition, gomme syrup meant sugar syrup that had gum arabic added as an emulsifier. It wasn’t fancy–just something to keep the sugar from crystallizing, but it had the added benefit of lending a luxurious texture to a cocktail, making it slide down your throat like a skein of silk.
I first read about gomme around two years ago, and have been meaning to make it ever since. Problem is, food-grade gum arabic isn’t something you just pick up at Safeway. After a long search, I finally found suspicious-looking little baggies of the white powder at a home baking store here in Seattle, and brought some home while I figured out how to use it. After digging around, and posting a note on the Drinkboy forum, I felt prepared to make my own gomme. Here’s how it worked:
The recipe I had (I think I originally got it from David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks, and Mr. Wondrich himself was kind enough to respond to my Drinkboy post) called for a pound of the gum powder–I had around two ounces. After doing the math, I mixed the following:
- 2 ounces powdered gum arabic
- 2 ounces water
To prevent distractions, I found it best to run down the batteries on my digital camera first, so I could focus on stirring–and stirring–and stirring–the sticky glutinous mess this combination made, instead of documenting it for bored web-surfers and cocktail geeks.
After letting the gluey mess rest for a day (which gave me time to pick up new batteries), I mixed a 2:1 sugar syrup on the stove, using 8 ounces of superfine sugar and 4 ounces of water. Once the sugar had dissolved and the mix came to a boil, I added the dissolved gum powder. Did I mention how gluey and generally unappetizing it looked at this point? Gah–
Once this boiled and started to foam up, I removed the pan from the heat and skimmed off the foamy scum. Scum now removed, I let the mixture cool, then strained it through cheesecloth and bottled it.
Did it work? Only one way to tell. In his Drinkboy response, Mr. Wondrich suggested trying it in some of the old-school booze-rich drinks, such as the Gin Cocktail, the Sazerac or the Brandy Crusta. So to give the gomme a test-drive, I pulled out my Van Winkle Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, along with my Pernod (sorry, no real absinthe in the house) and my Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, and mixed up a Sazerac with my new batch of gomme.
Verdict: Good God. OK, granted, a trained ape could make an incredible Sazerac just by introducing the Van Winkle rye into the mix, but the gomme lent it just the right texture, so it slipped down my throat as easy as you please. I think I mixed my drink somewhat on the dry side, so I didn’t get the full effect of the gomme, but there was a notable difference in the drink’s texture, versus one made with simple syrup.
To truly assess the grace of gomme, though, further experimentation is needed.
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