For many, grenadine is the poster child for mass-produced cocktail ingredients, synonymous with sickly sweet and unnaturally red syrups best used in Tequila Sunrises and other disco-era drinks.
“Folks have misconceptions about grenadine for the same reasons they have misconceptions about lime cordial,” says Matthew Belanger, the head bartender at Death & Co Los Angeles. “For so many of us, the first time we tasted grenadine on its own or in a drink was a neon-colored version made with high-fructose corn syrup and no natural ingredients whatsoever. Yuck!”
“I think most people associate grenadine with Shirley Temples, and even then I think it’s just considered a sweet red syrup,” says Brooks Reitz, the founder of the Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. line of mixers. “I’m certain that people don’t understand its history or the fact that it’s made with pomegranate.”
Even though we wouldn’t have a Jack Rose, Ward Eight, Scofflaw or El Presidente (to name just a few) without grenadine, Tom Garvin, the beverage director at Tribeca's Kitchen, finds grenadine is burdened with misconceptions. “Instead of a rich, enhancing pomegranate-based syrup, people think of grenadine as the leftover juice at the bottom of a jar of cherries,” he says.
Larger-scale brands like Rose’s are largely to blame—cloyingly sweet syrups that hold a monopoly on store shelves. But true grenadine doesn’t resemble the product that has led to so many grenadine aversions. “Rose's serves its purpose, which is to add color, but it’s essentially high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid and food coloring. The flavor is just sort of vaguely fruity,” says Theda Anderson, who makes J.T. Copper syrups. “A handcrafted grenadine is going to be a deep burgundy in color and is going to add incredible flavor complexity to drinks.”
Grenadine, a word that is derived from the French word for pomegranate, first appeared in 1872. Andersen notes that sugary versions started popping up not long thereafter. “Perhaps pomegranates were too expensive or too exotic, but American bartenders in the 1920s made their grenadine with cherries, lemons or oranges, or sometimes with no fruit at all, and added cochineal, red food coloring made from bugs,” she says. While grenadine started as a way to add rich pomegranate flavors, along the way it became not much more than a way to tint drinks red.
But bartender James Papastavros has faith in grenadine’s value. “Grenadine is one of those frequently-thought-of underrated syrups but when used correctly can really shape a great cocktail.” He’ll happily serve up a cocktail using grenadine for you at Bar Montauk in Toronto.
You can lean on a craft iteration as an easy alternative to sweeter syrups. Artisanal producers such as Portland, Oregon’s Raft, Milkwaukee’s BG Reynolds and Nantucket’s Stirrings, along with Reitz’s Jack Rudy and Anderson’s J.T. Copper, produce high-quality craft grenadines.
Many bartenders are taking matters into their own hands and crafting their own pomegranate syrups. “With homemade grenadine, you can shape how you want to utilize it by playing with the tart-and-sweet balance of it,” says Papastavros.
Belanger has sworn off store-bought syrups of any kind, opting instead to “make versions with all-natural pomegranate juice,” he says. “You can either juice your own pomegranates or use POM; either way would still be better than most commercial versions.“
It’s really the acidity added from natural pomegranates that store-bought grenadines sometimes lack. “Pomegranates are naturally tart, which balances the sweetness,” says Anderson. She adds lime juice to her recipe at J.T. Copper to amp up the tartness. “We also throw back to classic recipes by adding both orange blossom and rose water for floral notes and a touch of vanilla to round out the flavor and mellow both the sweet and tart notes,” she says.
Reitz finds when working in large batches, citric acid helps to balance the sweetness and keep the product shelf-stable. “It achieves the bright, zippy syrup we want,” he says, while the addition of orange flower water “gives it a gorgeous floral note and complex, pronounced aroma.” He also believes that the sweetener used makes all the difference in a grenadine recipe. “With Rose’s and similar offerings, they’re using high-fructose corn syrup as opposed to real cane sugar.”
Using Grenadine in Cocktails and More
Garvin notes that while grenadine is undeniably sweet, “so are most syrups and cordials that we use in cocktails all of the time,” he says. “It’s our job as bartenders to find the right amount of acidity to balance the drink, whether it’s with citrus or an alternative acid.”
Once you balance that acidity and sweetness, “grenadine is extremely versatile and at home with nearly any spirit,” says Rietz. When balanced, the tartness created is “a lovely way to introduce a tropical note while still maintaining a vibrancy that isn’t cloying,” he says. “I like utilizing it in a Daiquiri, scaling back on the sugar and swapping in some grenadine.” His rule of thumb is you need as much citrus in a cocktail as you do grenadine.
Garvin prefers grenadine paired with applejack. “The Jack Rose is one of my favorite grenadine cocktails,” he says. “There are some great fruity flavors from the apple brandy and pomegranate, and the sweetness is balanced out nicely with fresh lime juice.” Belanger votes for “apple brandy or calvados, or perhaps a single malt scotch or any sort of rum, especially a pot-still Jamaican rum.”
J.T. Copper co-founder Jolie Greatorex notes that there’s a rainbow of applications for grenadine beyond beverages. “Combine grenadine with vanilla extract and freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice for an amazing fruit salad dressing,” she says. “In vinaigrettes, sub grenadine in place of honey or maple syrup. Use it as a glaze for meat and roasted root vegetables, like carrots.“
Stuck with a bottle of overly sweet store-bought grenadine? Papapstavros has a hack for balancing its sweetness. “I find using a little lemon and unsweetened pomegranate juice in a cocktail recipe can really make a difference,” he says. Your Tequila Sunrise never tasted so good.