Let's start with a loud 'n' clear DISCLAIMER: Lest anyone accuse us of nepotism, our readership should be plainly reminded that Chris Onstad is both a friend and alumnus of the Portland Mercury. However, we really like his new cocktail and soda syrups, irrespective of the fact that he was our beloved food critic for so long.
I got together a while back with Onstad when he was between gigs. He'd recently escaped a soul-crushing corporate job, and had been dicking around with his neighbor Dan McLaughlin, home-brewing root beer and ginger syrups. They were really tasty, I thought, and how novel to make one's own soda syrups, right? This was some next-level DIY.
Cut to a year or so later, and he and McLaughlin had gotten their syrup game seriously dialed in, thanks to space provided by Reverend Nat West (at his namesake cidery) and equipment loaned to Reverend Nat's by Steven Smith of the similarly eponymous Steven Smith Teamaker. Onstad and McLaughlin developed a snappy label, their syrups were showing up in local stores, and they started collaborating with breweries. In addition to the aforementioned root beer and ginger, they added three more products: hibiscus-cardamom, vanilla-rooibos tea, and Water Avenue coffee syrup.
"These flavors arose naturally out of interest I had in the ingredients as I learned them," explains Onstad. "The Water Avenue coffee one happened because we co-pack Water Avenue's cold brew coffee and we had some extra laying around. I worked up a recipe, cooked it up, and nailed it on the first try." Did he ever.
seasoned day-drinker totally professional freelance food writer, I was eager to begin experimenting with the syrups. Each of them can be mixed directly with club soda to make a sophisticated beverage for the non-drinkers at your party, or they can step in for simple syrup in cocktail for a little more zip. Here are some other options.
My first attempt was the obvious, "For a good time just add bourbon." Root beer floats have never been more quaffable! The star anise, allspice, and sarsaparilla come through loud and clear in the root beer, and are readily embraced by the warm sweetness of brown liquor. Brush it on barbecued ribs!
This one, which also plays well with bourbon, is nice and hot thanks to the addition of dried chilies. I found that the imminently versatile ginger syrup was also really nice when added to soy sauce and sesame oil to make a quick teriyaki sauce. Just thicken with a little cornstarch and let it simmer for a couple seconds, mix with your favorite starch, veg, and protein (I used linguine, broccolini, and sliced roast pork), and sprinkle on sliced scallions and sesame seeds.
This floral syrup functions as a grenadine analog in all the expected ways: as a float in prosecco, stirred into gin or vodka and soda, or to sweeten a refreshing, citrus-based iced herbal tea cooler. The cardamom, though pronounced, isn't soapy, calmed by the slight tang provided by rosehips. The syrup would be gorgeous for soaking the delectable Indian doughnut holes known as gulab jamun (Pip's, take note) or drizzled onto baklava.
Made with local Water Avenue coffee, the coffee syrup is a revelation. You can splash it into a glass of milk or spoon it over ice cream, sure, but the greatest thing I have ever created in this world is the following cocktail, which I call the Francis Bebey (inspired by Francis Bebey's Coffee Cola Song): In a tumbler, stir together two ounces white rum with a tablespoon of Water Avenue coffee syrup, add ice, then stir in two ounces each club soda and cola. (I use Virgil's.) It might sound weird, but dammit it tastes like summer—if summer tastes like really groovy African music from the 1970s.
This one's a bit more subtle and takes a deft hand to mix into something with pizazz. It tastes to me like super-concentrated sweet tea, but I couldn't figure out how to mix it into a cocktail, which is a failure I suppose I can live with—aside from my brush with genius on the Francis Bebey, I'm no mixologist. That said, it would be divine dribbled over a sweet grits spoonbread, whisked into whipped cream to top a slice of sweet potato pie, or mixed with salted butter and mustard and brushed onto smoked chicken.
Want a taste of the syrup for yourself? It's available in stores around town or at portlandsoda.com. If you can't be arsed to fiddle with it yourself, Kenny & Zuke's serves the root beer on tap, and you can see the syrups in action at Besaw's, Smallwares, Laurelhurst Market, P's & Q's, and Tilt, where bartenders use it to work their magic.