It’s a childhood right of passage to order your first Shirley Temple — bubbly with buoying cherries and orange slices and made enticingly with an eye-popping ruby red syrup. Grenadine is a syrup that most people tend to grow out of, but that may be because they’ve only had the mass-produced stuff. Real grenadine is richer, more fragrant, and more complex than the bright red stuff from childhood — and it’s most certainly not cherry-flavored. To sort out the misconceptions surrounding the ingredient, VinePair chatted with Alex Smith, beverage director of Outer Heaven and Laissez Faire in NYC.
Grenadine was originally a pomegranate syrup, according to Smith — in fact, the name comes from the word “grenade” in French, which translates to pomegranate. Surprisingly, it has no association with the Grenadines archipelago. Well-made grenadine is a deep purple and is slightly bitter with floral notes, a far stretch from the pseudo-cherry mixer we know today. “It’s basically a syrup made from pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, sugar, and orange blossom water,” says Smith. “It’s definitely not a high-fructose, bright red corn syrup.”
Grenadine was an ingredient heavily featured in bars across the country by the early 20th century; close to 100 drinks feature it in the iconic “Savoy Cocktail Book” from 1930, with many recipes suggesting to use it or raspberry syrup interchangeably. It became the scarlet syrup it is known as today because of a lack of regulation. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the name can be “loosely applied to syrups and beverages consisting of other fruit juices and sugar syrup,” and does not have to strictly use pomegranate. The FDA then goes on to suggest using cost-effective black currants instead to achieve a similar taste and enhance it with other flavorings. “It’s a convenience factor to make it readily available for people,” says Smith “I think chain restaurants probably had a big part to do with that. The bright red simple syrup with cherry flavoring doesn’t really have a place behind a proper cocktail bar”
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In May 2022, The New York Times published an article crowing the “Dirty Shirley” — the nostalgic classic spiked with vodka — as the drink of the summer. When asked what he thinks of that, Smith chuckles. “I’ve already seen people starting to ask for it, which is just crazy,” he says. “I think that the problem is if I handed them a vodka Sprite with house-made grenadine, they wouldn’t see the color they want. They’d be confused — they wouldn’t get it because they want this candy-colored red concoction. We’re in an environment where everyone is looking for something not too sweet, skinny-this skinny-that, and now, they’re pushing a drink that is super sweet and unnecessary.”
Besides that over-the-top vodka highball, Smith knows a few other “grown-up” uses for grenadine. Classic cocktails such as the Monkey Gland, El Presidente, and Zombie are all given a new life when made with quality ingredients. One that stands out for Smith is the Jack Rose — “It’s arguably New Jersey’s claim to fame as far as cocktails go” — made with apple brandy, lemon juice, and grenadine. “My favorite version of that would be a cocktail called the Pan American Flipper,” says Smith. “It’s essentially a Jack Rose with a dash of absinthe, and that’s a phenomenal cocktail. But, you have to have good ingredients to really make it taste good.”