Monday 12 June 2023

Gimme that gomme! Making your own gomme syrup

The gum Arabic powder as it comes (against white paper for colour comparison)

If you’re in the habit of perusing vintage cocktail books (of course you are) you may well have encountered references to “gomme syrup”. The purpose of this was to make cocktails sweeter, without adding any other flavours—as opposed to flavoured syrups such as grenadine (flavoured with pomegranate) or orgeat (almond-flavoured).

Indeed the term is often used just to refer to a simple syrup of sugar and water, and you certainly need to have a sugar syrup to hand to make many classic cocktails. Some people mix sugar and water 1:1 but I prefer 2:1 sugar to water. You can heat it up in a pan, but Ed McAvoy once showed me that you can make it quickly by filling an empty wine or spirit bottle two-thirds full with dry granulated sugar, then carefully topping it up with just-boiled water, and shaking it vigorously until all the sugar is dissolved. 

However, real gomme syrup also contains gum Arabic (hence the name, gomme), which comes from the sap of acacia trees and serves as a thickener. Nowadays you can buy commercial gomme syrup (though I think that when I first started taking an interest in these things about 15 years ago, you possibly could not). I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly tasted any, so I decided to make my own.

Fortunately you can buy gum Arabic easily enough. I bought some from a health-food outlet on Etsy. Some examples I’ve seen come as brown crystals, buy mine arrived as a plastic bag of off-white powder. Searching online for recipes, I found they all tend to have the same proportions, though they vary in method. In the first instance you need to blend the gum powder with a little water—some say boiling water, some say room temperature. Beating or whisking out the lumps takes about 5–10 minutes. After this some people have you move straight on to the next stage, others say you must leave it for 48 hours. I went with another recipe that said to leave it for three hours, and it all seemed to work OK.

Gomme Syrup
1 oz or 4 tbs gum Arabic
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup water

Boil the water and add ¼ cup of it to the gum powder. Whisk until all the lumps have gone, then set aside for three hours. Put the remaining water and the sugar in a pan over heat, add the gum mixture and stir until all the sugar crystals have dissolved. Leave to cool, then bottle.

What the gum looks like after whisking with a little water

To establish what, if anything, the gum added, I simultaneously made a sugar syrup using the same proportions of sugar and water (so a bit more water than I would normally use for syrup), so I could compare the two. To look at, my gomme had a tawny tinge to it, while the plain syrup has no colour (see the photo below).

I should not have been sceptical, because the effect of the gum, while not dramatic, is quite noticeable. I made two Daiquiris (rum, syrup and lime juice), identical except one used the simple sugar syrup and the other used the gomme syrup. In the mix, with the colour of the lime juice present, the two cocktails were indistinguishable to look at, but the gomme clearly added a richer mouthfeel. 

This texture is something that other recipes (such as the White Lady) pursue by adding egg white; and indeed pineapple juice—when shaken vigorously—also produces a thick, creamy texture. But having tried it, I would say that gomme syrup has the advantage that, once made, it will keep, while egg white and fruit juice will not. (Also, if you have to crack an egg, then you’re left with the question of what to do with the yolk. Here in the UK you can buy pint cartons of pre-separated egg white in the chilled section of supermarkets, which is convenient if you need to make 50 White Ladies in a hurry, though a bit of a waste if you only want one.) Gomme also has the advantage over pineapple juice that it won’t make everything taste of pineapple.

Ordinary simple syrup on the left, gomme syrup on the right

Some sources say your gomme syrup will keep in the fridge for six months, others say just one month. A couple of people claim that adding a tablespoon of vodka will add another month of fridge-life, though I find it hard to believe that the resulting ABV of about 3% is going to have much of a preservative effect, compared to the high concentration of sugar. I’m also not clear what happens to the syrup after this: perhaps it’s just likely to go mouldy, which I have seen happen to syrups in the past.

I would certainly recommend giving gomme a go. While it’s a bit of a faff compared to regular syrup, once it’s done it’ll probably keep you going for quite a while, and my packet of gum powder, priced at £3.95, is enough to make four batches like this.

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