‘It’s called Disco, so we’re buying it!’: the rise and rise of fancy cordials

As soon as the sun shows its nose in Britain, we want to be outside with a drink. Socks shrink, shoulders relax, park tennis courts teem with hopefuls counting down the days to Wimbledon, and we start pouring.

You might presume this means alcohol. One recent baking hot week, in late March, Waitrose says it saw a 600% increase in searches for “summer cordial recipes”, compared with February. It also says that when Wimbledon was cancelled in 2020 (quashing Robinsons’ hopes of being the tournament’s official soft drink for the 85th summer in a row), households stockpiled all manner of squash for their homeschooled kids, as well as what the sector calls “premium dilutes” – cordials – for homeworking parents.

Since the soft drinks industry levy in 2018, AKA the sugar tax, drinks manufacturers have been reducing the sugar content in these offerings, but that doesn’t mean we’re drinking any less of them. Supermarkets can barely keep up with demand. Waitrose is banking on the same almost 10% bump in sales for 2022 as it saw in 2021. “In all warm countries, this is what you need,” says Honey and Co’s Itamar Srulovich. “Something really cold and something really sweet.”

Until recently, “premium dilutes” has basically meant cordial brands such as Belvoir Farm and Bottlegreen, and French sirops (Monin or Teisseire), which one Mumsnet user recently described as, “a bit like squash but much nicer”. How dilutes are sweetened is crucial to understanding their differences. In France, for something to be sold as a “sirop de fruit”, it has to contain at least 10% fruit juice (7% if it’s citrus) and at least 50% sweetener (sugar, dextrose, honey, fructose). Cordials, meanwhile, are often similarly sweetened, just less concentrated. Both syrups and cordials are meant to be diluted (which at its most basic means with water, still or sparkling) but where the ratio for cordial is generally 1:4 or 1:5, with syrups, it’s 1:7.

Urban Cordial’s strawberry and sage. Photograph: Scott Kimble/PR

Quite what a dilute can be though, in terms of flavour, has constellated of late into a frankly exhilarating array of possibilities. First up, cordials have been upgraded in both gustatory and climate-conscious ways. Ex-financial auditor Natasha Steele launched Urban Cordial in 2016 to fight food waste. She uses surplus fruit and veg (saving 120 tonnes to date) and the whole production process is zero-waste because the pulp leftover from making the juices goes to farms as animal feed. “It’s really good quality. It’s good for you. And it’s doing something good,” says Steele. “I think people want that.”

Urban Cordial has had five Great Taste awards for unexpected flavour combinations. These include raspberry and rosemary; strawberry and sage; and apple, lemon and fennel. Of the last, one commenter said: “Not too sweet. A Goldilocks product. Just right.”

Some of the Bristol Syrup Co’s numbered cordials.
Some of the Bristol Syrup Co’s numbered cordials. Photograph: Publicity image

West Country brand The Bristol Syrup Co numbers its flavours, which range from classic simple sugar syrups (for making highballs and whiskey sours) to pineapple and coconut syrups.Though these are destined primarily for the bar trade, when Covid got us all mixing cocktails at home, people started buying Bristol syrups for DIY drinking too.

Steele says she has a recipe list on her website, but mostly only mixes her cordials with water. “I tend not to recommend anything too elaborate because you don’t want to move away from the flavour of the cordial.” Price and context are crucial here. Steele says that because her products are labelled as cordials, she can’t set the price too high (£6 per 500ml) because people just wouldn’t pay a high price for a cordial, whereas they will for a shrub (a vinegar-based, fruit-flavour syrup, often with added aromatics).

And the Bristol Syrup Company’s business development manager, Greg Williams, says the same: the syrups are always mixed with something (you wouldn’t drink them neat). Mixologists will use them in cocktails. But much like French mint or grenadine sirop, they are good just with water too. Its passionfruit (number 5) is the bestseller, and the Disco grenadine (a newcomer, at number 19) is getting a lot of love for its 1970s flamboyance. “People have come up to me and said: ‘Look, we don’t really care what it tastes like, but it’s called Disco, so we’re going to buy it.’”

A survey in December 2021 found that one in three British drinkers regularly orders low or no alcohol drinks, up from one in four in 2020. This trend has seen the low and no alcohol sector grow by 40% in the UK between 2019 and 2021. “Posh squash”, as a category, might not be quite what drinks purveyors are going for with their 0% spirits and soft shrub mixers, but to understand what you’re pouring, it’s not far off.

Six years ago, after designing drinks for the Dishoom group of restaurants, UK mixologist Carl Anthony Brown tackled non-alcoholic spirits. Drinking, for him, has always been about flavour, and he found the options for anyone wanting to have a good time and not get drunk decidedly underwhelming. “Your choices were: water; tonic water – because that’s adult water, purely because of the bitterness of it; some kind of soft drink, cola or whatever; or a mocktail. And that word just makes me angry.”

So he locked himself in a dark room with a notebook and all the alcoholic spirits he could think of, and got very drunk, noting how each felt, tasted and otherwise affected him – whether his cheeks were flushed or his mouth dry. He wanted to come up with a drink that would elicit a similarly multilayered experience for the drinker. As he puts it: “One of the best drinks in the world is Morrisons’ own brand peach cordial topped up with soda, but you can’t really do that in a bar. People would be like: ‘Sorry, you’re just using Morrisons’ own brand cordial and mixing it.’ They would not be happy.”

To achieve the complexity of a proper cocktail, he worked backwards. Instead of attempting a soft version of any individual spirit, he started with the basic categories of drinks they are mixed into. He came up with three: citrussy (the Cosmopolitan, the G&T, the vodka lime and soda); bitter (aperitivos, digestives, Italian bitters); and smokey (anything with whisky, mezcal or aged rum). His versions take as their base, respectively, fresh citrus (mandarin, lemon, grapefruit, orange), hibiscus (with rhubarb and other floral notes), and lapsang souchong. And you mix them as you would a cocktail, with sodas, tonic water and the like.

Just as cordials started out as Renaissance medicinal liquors, held to be guardians of health, so many of these new drinks are, in fact, old ideas. Shrubs are a case in point, stemming mostly from the Mesopotamian/Persian sharbat tradition.

Nonsuch’s grapefruit and pineapple spritz.
Nonsuch’s grapefruit and pineapple spritz.

Henry Chevallier Guild and his brother Barry were the eighth generation of their Suffolk family to own and run Aspall cyder and vinegar makers, before they sold up in 2018. Nonsuch shrubs were born of this tradition. Where a cordial or squash has added sugar and water, these shrubs are made from vinegar and fruit alone. Flavours include blood orange and bitter lemon; wild hedgerow and rose; and bittersweet apple and cardamom.

“What I love about them is that they are not trying to be something else,” says Chevallier Guild. “The vinegar adds the balance while the botanicals carry flavour and offer a savoury element.” You end up with, he says, something genuinely interesting.

Sevenstones’ citrus and samphire shrub cocktail.
Sevenstones’ citrus and samphire shrub cocktail. Photograph: Publicity image

You can also get a Cornish shrub, now bottled in small batches by Sevenstones. Its recipe is based on one found in Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery from 1741, and contains an ingredients list as evocative as the origin story of the Cornish shrub itself: sugar cane, rock samphire, honey, orange blossom, orange peel, orange juice, lemon peel, lemon juice, cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, cloves, bay, cordiander, rosehips, allspice and fennel. It is said that barrels of rum would be sunk in the sea to avoid customs, and when the salt water spoiled the contents, a shrub (made using 500 oranges per barrel!) would be added to make it drinkable.

From Robinsons’ octogenarian affair with British tennis to smugglers spiking rum with sea salt and citrus, the beauty of these drinks isn’t just their sweetness, it’s their romance. The promise of a universe in a tumbler on a hot summer’s day.

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