Behind the Bar

Jamming Out Behind the Bar with Preserves, Jellies & More

Cans of jelly on a counter.
Jams, preserves and jellies make it possible to keep summer flavors behind the bar all year long. Photo via iStock/jeffbergen.

As summer ends, people start talking about preserving the season, making conserves and jams to carry warm-weather flavors across the year. What could be more comforting than a splash of raspberry jam on toast in the middle of winter? Spring jellies, autumnal marmalades and spiced jams in cocktails. All year 'round, creative bartenders put preserves to cocktails use in cocktails, changing textures, adding richness, invoking memories and making some of the best drinks.

“I've always loved various types of preserves in cocktails,” says Chris Morris, head bartender of Hunky Dory, in Houston. “They give you a kind of body that regular fruit syrups can't.”

Conserves in cocktails came to Morris' attention through Salvatore Calabrese's breakfast martini. “On its face,” Morris says, “it's just a gin sour with marmalade. You start asking yourself, 'Why would you do that?' It's for the body and complexity ... These jams, these preserves, give something that a regular syrup just can't. There's something else there.”

At present, Hunky Dory has two jams on the menu. Tinkering starts long before jam meets the shaker. “We don't use them in the raw form; we always alter them in some way, because they're really great as a base.”

For one cocktail, Morris makes an orange marmalade cordial. Hunky Dory is an English restaurant, so marmalade was a natural starting point. “We start with orange marmalade,” Morris says. “We submerse that in regular one-to-one simple syrup, to break it up. Then we blend it on low speed.” Morris keeps the mixture whirring for about five minutes. “Then we'll add a little bit of orange blossom water ... and run it through a fine sieve.” The result? “We get an orange-flavored syrup that has built-in complexity from all the pectins, so it has this little bit of extra body.”

That syrup serves a cocktail with Earl Grey tea vodka, lemon juice and honey, “like an English tea cocktail.”

Don't underestimate the versatility of a jammy syrup. The orange syrup has become what Morris calls “an all-star, just riffing on other drinks. It makes a killer White Lady. We don't need to put as much alcohol in the drink. We throw a teaspoon of it in random Negroni variations, and it works super well with any amaro – this big body that can hold up to the bitterness.”

A dark purple cocktail in a coupe glass, garnished with a lime wheel. Ground Control to Major Tom features a blackberry-blackcurrant cordial and Old Tom Gin. Photo courtesy of Hunky Dory.

A mainstay on Hunky Dory's menu, Ground Control to Major Tom also features fruit. “We take frozen blackcurrant purée – like 88% and 12% invert sugar.” Morris blends the purée with flesh blackberries and incorporates rosewater and simple syrup to make blackberry-blackcurrant cordial. That goes with Old Tom gin, lime juice, orange bitters and celery bitters. “That's been one of our bestselling cocktails since we put it on the menu, two months after we opened.”

The Dorian, in San Francisco, is another bar with a jammy signature cocktail. Anderson Pugash says The Dorian is “whiskey-centric,” and the team wanted a bourbon drink that would stand out in a cocktail-saturated city.

That need led to The Alibi. Built to please whiskey-lovers, the Alibi is made with bourbon, salted pistachio syrup, lemon juice and orange marmalade. Owner Anderson Pugash says, “It adds a really cool texture and mouthfeel to the cocktail and a unique flavor profile.”

Are customers confused by finding a breakfast spread in the drinks menu? Not at all. “It's one of our best-selling cocktails – a neighborhood favorite, for sure.”

Maybe that's because preserves in cocktails are familiar friends in new formats. We all grew up with taste-dense spreads, and that cooked-fruit profile is far from bashful. John Garda, who bartends at Seamstress and The Up & Up in New York City, describes jam as “a flavor concentrator.”

It's one he works with a lot. “At Seamstress,” Garda says, “we've used jam in three cocktails over the past year. With one of my last projects, I made persimmon jam, so that I would have the sweet persimmon density that I wanted in the cocktail.”

With jam, Garda can guarantee consistency in every batch. “Besides the advantage of being shelf-stable, it's also flavor-stable.” With fresh fruit, you don't get that kind of control. “We've all seen strawberries in the same box: some are riper than others, some are sweeter than others. When you're grabbing two or three pieces, your opportunities for variance are a lot higher.” With fresh fruit, a drink's spec will not result in exactly the same flavor from one drink to the next – not in one season, one week, or one shift. With a reduction, a jam, you get that precision – and more. “You're allowing different additions,” Garda says. “You're allowing for a curated flavor.”

Spices, herbs, the temperature and duration of heat, the addition of spirits or teas – the possible permutations of preserves are almost endless. So are the ways you can use them in drinks. Putting summer fruits in winter cocktails isn't always straightforward, but it can be playful and clever – and that can catch a customer's attention.

At New York's Pouring Ribbons, bartender Courtney Colarik uses jam to strike a bright chord in a dark cocktail. Colarik says, “Especially as we move into fall and winter months, we are moving away from seasonal fruits.” Citrus juices shine in cool-weather cocktails, Colarik says, “but people want berries still.” In most parts of the country, the berries you find in the midwinter markets won't taste good. With jam, “you take the freshest, ripest fruit, and you preserve it at the height of the season, and then you're able to highlight it in a cocktail year-round.”

Jam “brings a different richness to the drink. I like it better than using fruit purées or frozen fruit,” Colarik says. “I like the added sugar content.” You're going to be adding sugar to a cocktail, anyway; jam takes care of some of that.

As to spirits, “tequila tends to lend itself to fruit.” For her new cocktail, “I tried with prickly pear, and that didn't work.” She didn't give up on jam. She just changed kinds. “Raspberry is a bright, beautiful fruit.” The sweet, fresh flavor was all Colarik wanted, but Pouring Ribbons' upcoming menu was inspired by Victorian and Gothic authors. Those aren't as cheery as ripe summer fruits.

A black cocktail with a flower garnish. The Heart of Darkness features tequila, mezcal, raspberry preserves and activated charcoal. Photo by Courtney Colarik.

Colarik turned the theme to the drink's advantage, bringing Victorian conflicts into play. The cocktail takes its name and its character from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Unlike the novel's, the cocktail's darkness is largely visual. “Activated charcoal is added,” Colarik says, “so it is presented as a black cocktail.” Activated charcoal colors a drink without changing the flavor, so the jamminess shines through. “I wanted that dark, rich color. I was enchanted by the idea of having a dark drink that tasted really fruity.”

“I was playing with the idea of perception versus reality. You get this drink set in front of you, and you're like, 'What did I get myself into?'” A sip takes a patron on an unexpected journey: more summer on the beach than exploration of inner and outer darkness. Colarik describes it as “aggressively quaffable.”

Thinking of jam beyond this menu, Colarik says, “I would be interested in seeing it in a stirred drink ...” She admits that this wouldn't be as simple as adding preserves to a shaken cocktail, but it's obvious that the idea intrigues her.

Adding a challenge for bartenders who haven't used it, jam contributes more than flavor. It's “a texture additive," Garda observes. “Depending on whether you're using pectin, it can also give you a thicker consistency, even after shaking and removing the solid matter with a strainer.” It changes the mouthfeel – “Not by an enormous amount, but it's there.”

Having a kitchen gives you finer control. When you cook from scratch, you can tailor your conserves and your cocktails, and do so seasons in advance. To some extent, you can do that with syrups, but the results are different – and “with jams,” Garda says, “you can preserve them.” Syrups aren't that shelf-stable. “You can make jam, and if you do it in a traditional fashion – which is not nearly as complicated as people think – it's something you can keep for a long time ... Once you have that thing sealed correctly, you're good to go.” Your fresh-strawberry cocktail will be just as bright in January as it was last year, in June.

If you don't have a kitchen, that's fine. Colarik's jam comes from the corner store. “It's tempting, when you're creating drinks, to do as much as possible,” With a rueful smile, Colarik acknowledges that it can be smarter to skip the hours of prep – and sometimes, the timing just isn't right. “By the time I started working on this drink,” Colarik says, “ raspberries were past their peak, so I wouldn't have been able to use them if I was making homemade preserves.” That's one problem a trip to the supermarket can solve.

Hunky Dory has always used store-bought jam. These days, Morris is considering making marmalade – but that's partly about reducing waste. “We go through so many oranges ... We wind up with a surplus of skinned oranges around.” For your bar, it may make more sense to go to the corner shop – and that's fine. Morris' advice: “If it tastes good, use it.”

Advice on using jams in cocktails:

Chris Morris: Go gently. “When we get new bartenders in, one of the first mistakes they always make is over-processing the marmalade. We take marmalade, submerge it in simple, and then very gently break it up, using a spatula or barspoon. Then we put it in a VitaMix and blend it on one, one-and-a-half, just to spin it. They spin it too far, aerate it, and it clouds the texture of the cordial.”

John Garda: “Be wary of the additional work, and what impact it may have in a busy bar setting. It will create more solids in your drink that you will have to strain out – unless that's something you want to add to your drink, which is possible.” Fine-straining a cocktail might not seem like a time-eater, but when you're three-deep in the weeds, those precious seconds add up.

Courtney Colarik: “You don't have to use as much sugar to balance out the drink. You have to think about the extra sugar that you're gaining from these fruits.”

See for yourself what jams, jellies and more can do for your cocktails. Check out the recipe for Hunky Dory's Ground Control to Major Tom and Pouring Ribbons' Heart of Darkness.

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