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The word “cordial,” as it’s used in the United States, is a little ambiguous, encompassing both liqueurs and nonalcoholic syrups. When it’s used to mean the latter, how does a cordial differ from a regular old one-to-one sugar and water combo? “Syrup is the broad-based category, and cordials are a segment of it; not all syrups are cordials, but all cordials are syrups,” says Christa Cotton of El Guapo Bitters in New Orleans. “To me, a cordial is more complex in flavor; there are more components.”
The word has popped up on cocktail menus as a more interesting modifier than a typical simple syrup. The appeal of cordials lies in their stand-alone complexity. A great cordial doesn’t just balance sugar and acid (and the resulting flavors of sweet and sour); it often combines fruit, spices and/or herbs to create something that’s as exciting when combined with club soda as it is with your spirit of choice.
For Nashville’s Rhonda Cammons, the desire to get drinks served quickly to her corporate clients without cutting corners on ingredients led her to create Perfectly Cordial, which takes inspiration from the structure of sours and complexity of Tiki in her young but growing line of bottled cordials. “With corporate bartending, it’s always about time and getting a good drink in front of customers quickly,” she says. “I was looking for good quality mixers that I could buy wholesale, and there was nothing.” So she started tinkering. “If you didn’t drink alcohol, I’d make you a riff on a cold green tea with caramelized pineapple, coconut water and seltzer. I had more people ordering the nonalcoholic stuff with cordials than traditional Gin & Tonics or Vodka Sodas, and I thought, Maybe I’m on to something here.”
She is, and so are these other craft cordial makers.
BG Reynolds Lime Cordial ($17/375 mL)
Portland, Oregon, bartender Blair Reynolds’ line of cordials, syrups and mixers were born of his need for something particular and better than he was able to procure—in this particular case, a high-quality lime cordial to use in the classic Tiki cocktail Suffering Bastard. “Any lime cordial you could find on the shelf was full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor and an oddly nuclear green color,” says Reynolds, so he decided to create a better alternative. In his cordial, he uses a specially made oil and particulate key lime concentrate, the fruit flash-frozen in Florida during the growing season. “We keep the process as close to homemade as we can, with no artificial flavors, preservatives or unexpected chemicals involved,” he says. Tart and tropical, the result is a rich, layered syrup humming with bright citrusy flavor and a touch of pleasant bitterness.
El Guapo Rose Cordial ($14/8.5 oz.)
Cotton is a stickler for using extractions, flavors and coloring from whole-fruit, herb and flower macerations. To produce her rose cordial, she uses whole dried rose hips and rose petals imported from Greece, with a 48-hour steeping process to achieve its color and clarity. The result is a fresh, floral, sweet and gently tart cordial that achieves the attributes of its floral flavor source without veering soapy.
Perfectly Cordial Caramelized Pineapple and Coconut Water ($15/12.5 oz.)
For two decades, Cammons has split her time between her two passions: creating cocktails and her career as a dedicated RN (which recently included a 90-day stint as a COVID-19 case manager). Her health care background has left her acutely aware of food allergies and ingredient triggers, so she has ensured her cordial line is all-natural, she says. Since she released Perfectly Cordial in 2019, she has kept the product line small but her flavors mighty. The intense, rich and ripe aromas of the caramelized pineapple and coconut water cordial is a dead ringer for pineapples simmered in brown sugar and butter in an upside-down cake spiked with freshly grated nutmeg, but within its silky texture runs the pleasant zap of acid from fresh yuzu.
SOM Strawberry Thai Basil Cane Vinegar Cordial ($19/16.9 oz.)
James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker’s line of cane-sugar- and vinegar-based cordials each feature a freshness that hints at its ingredients’ sourcing, much of it hand-harvested in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest area. The cordials’ weighty mouthfeel is out-and-out voluptuous, but an underlying tart-sweet snap on the palate keeps it from becoming cloying. If you have a hankering for a fresh strawberry, the strawberry Thai basil cordial flavor’s just-crushed juiciness combined with the herby aroma of Thai basil makes it a go-to for blanco tequila over ice or simply a glug of club soda.