Make Your Valentine a Jack Rose

The importance of homemade grenadine. Also: a Jack Rose with Campari.

Normally, the main weekly edition of this newsletter goes out to paid subscribers only. But I plan to make some exceptions for holidays and special occasions. Speaking of which, happy Valentine’s Day. 

To celebrate, we’re going to make a Jack Rose, a pinkish-red brandy sour that’ll look great on a counter with a bouquet of roses. And then, because sometimes our lives are marked by heartbreak and regret, we’re going to make a bitter variant. If nothing else, you can count on it being delicious. 

There is much about the Jack Rose that is unknown or in dispute, but this much we can say with reasonable certainty: It’s a classic sour which for most of its life has consisted of apple brandy (or applejack), grenadine, and either lemon or lime juice.

Like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, it’s a three-part band of a drink, consisting of a spirit and two complementary elements that expand its flavor and balance it out. Unlike the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, however, most versions contain no bitters. Instead, the complementary elements are a sweetener (grenadine) and a sour element (lemon or lime juice). And as with virtually all sours, it’s a shaken drink. 

The cocktail dates back to the late 1800s, and it was most likely invented at the New York bar Eberline’s. According to the always trusty cocktail historian David Wondrich, the name was first reported by a reporter who’d drunk at the bar. The drink didn’t appear in cocktail books until the early 1900s, however. And the first wave of recipes varied greatly, with some including ingredients like orange juice and raspberries. 

A decade or so later, however, the drink had settled somewhat, at least in terms of its three essential ingredients. You can find versions of it in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book as well as David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, first published in 1948. 

Does Anyone Know What a Jack Rose Is? 

Each of those books contains a recipe utilizing the three ingredients we still use today. And yet from the citrus to the ratio to the particulars of the syrup itself, the drink’s form remains, after all these years, a matter of some dispute. There are almost as many Jack Roses as there are Jack Rose recipes. 

Both Savoy and Fine Art, for example, call for different ratios: Craddock calls for three parts applejack, one part grenadine, and the juice of either half a lemon or one lime. Embury, on the other hand, called for a whopping eight parts apple brandy, two parts lemon juice, and one part grenadine, making for a substantially stronger, drier drink. (This is not at all surprising; Embury, one of the earliest known homemade cocktail enthusiasts, was a boisterous advocate for quite strong, quite dry drinks.) 

This sort of disagreement about how to make the drink persists today. You’ll find some recipes that employ an 8:3:3 structure, fairly common for modern sours, with two ounces of spirit and three-quarters of an ounce each of grenadine and citrus. You’ll find others that drop the base portion to an ounce and a half, and cut the grenadine to a half ounce, for a 6:3:2 ratio. I have even seen 8:4:3 versions, with two ounces of spirit, an ounce of citrus, and three quarters an ounce of grenadine. There are other ratios still. Notably, none of these quite line up with the older Craddock or Embury versions. It’s a total ratio free-for-all.

Similarly, recipes differ in calling for lime or lemon — or occasionally both — and others call for different base spirits, including lower-proof applejack, higher-proof American apple brandy, and calvados, a French apple brandy. 

And then there is the grenadine. 

You may associate grenadine with the bright red, ultra sweet syrup you buy at a grocery store to put in a child’s Sprite, turning it into the classic kiddie cocktail, the Shirley Temple. Although it is certainly possible to make a Jack Rose using this stuff, I cannot stress strongly enough that you should not do this.

Grocery store grenadine may be tolerable when you are a small child with a sweet tooth, but it is never acceptable in an adult cocktail, because it is, quite simply, gross. It also tastes entirely wrong, more like a kind of cherry toothpaste fructose goop than what it’s supposed to taste like, which is pomegranate, sweetened with sugar.

Grenadine is simply pomegranate syrup — the juice of the fruit integrated with an equal portion of sugar. Like simple syrup, it’s quite easy to make a high-quality version on your own, and doing so makes a huge difference in cocktails. So that’s what we’re going to do today. 

Make Your Own Grenadine

As with the Jack Rose itself, recipes for homemade grenadine vary wildly. All involve some combination of sugar and pomegranate juice, but some call for heating, others for mixing in a blender. Some call for the addition of powdered acids, others for pomegranate molasses or orange blossom water. And while the ratio of juice to sugar is usually 1:1, I’ve seen recipes that call for 3:1. Some bartenders, meanwhile, insist on juicing fresh pomegranates, which can be a somewhat daunting task. 

I say keep it simple. Perfectly good homemade can be made using equal parts POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, ordinary white sugar — and nothing else. It should come out a nice, deep red, which will pleasantly enhance the color of the final drink.

If you can find orange blossom water, a bit of it helps. Pomegranate molasses will give it a little more body. You can always adjust the acidity with a teaspoon or two of citric acid if you’d like. (All of these ingredients can be found on Amazon.) But none of these additions are necessary for making a perfectly good, perfectly delicious syrup. 

Ideally, you’ll use a kitchen scale rather than a cup/volume measure. And you really do have to use POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. Anything else, even the fancy artisanal brands, will at best represent no improvement. Many of them are actively worse. I do like to add orange blossom water, which gives the flavor a little bit of extra fruity tang. But it’s not strictly necessary.

Don’t overcomplicate this. You can pull off in 15 or 20 minutes, plus a couple of hours of cooldown time. 

Here’s how I make it:

  • 250 grams sugar

  • 250 grams POM Wonderful pomegranate juice

  • 15 grams orange blossom water (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Pour pomegranate juice into saucepan. 

  2. Heat on a stovetop at medium. Warm the juice, but do not at any point let it boil. 

  3. After juice is warm (2-3 minutes), gently pour in sugar and orange blossom water.

  4. Whisk intermittently until sugar and liquid are thoroughly integrated — roughly 5-10 minutes. By the end, you should not see floating sugar granules. When you scrape the bottom of the pan with a spoon, there should not be a layer of sugar sludge. The entire mixture should be the same consistency. 

  5. Pour into squeeze bottle or plastic storage container, then chill. Store in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. 

Build Your Own Jack Rose

Now that you’ve made your own grenadine, you still have a few more decisions to make. 

Let’s go with the easiest one first: Lemon or lime? For me, there’s no question: Always lemon. While I wouldn’t reject a lime version, lemon pairs a little more easily with the apple and pomegranate flavors, reducing some of the sharpness you often get from lime juice. As always, make sure to squeeze your citrus fresh, the same day you make the drink. 

Next, you have the spirit: The most important thing here is to use real apple brandy or applejack, not cheap brandy that has some sort of apple flavoring. If it costs less than $15 a bottle and it has the word “apple” somewhere on the label, you’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere. 

That said, you don’t have to spend a ton of money either. Laird’s Applejack, an 80 proof apple-based spirit made by one of the oldest distillers in the United States, is the standard bottle here. It’s light brown, light bodied, with a mild, ever so slightly bright flavor that should remind you of a trip to an orchard. It’s available for about $20 a bottle, and generally easy to find. 

It’s worth spending a little more for an upgrade, however. You can use calvados — Busnel is excellent — but I tend to think it’s a bit too soft and smooth for this drink. I like something with a bit more grit and character.

For about $35, Laird’s also makes a straight apple brandy, bottled in bond at 100 proof. It’s richer, darker, fuller in flavor, with a fruity alcoholic kick. Unlike the Applejack, which is blended with neutral grain spirits, it’s a straight brandy.

Like Rittenhouse Rye, Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy holds its own in cocktails a little better than lower-proof options, but it isn’t so strong that it takes over a drink. It’s an essential home bar ingredient, and it comes in handy surprisingly often. I don’t reach for it as often as Rittenhouse, but I utilize it in several drinks on my regular rotation.

Finally, there’s the ratio. If you like a slightly stronger, slightly drier drink that doesn’t go the full Embury, you can try an 8:3:3, with two ounces of apple brandy, and three-quarters of an ounce each of lemon juice and grenadine. But while lots of knowledgeable cocktail gurus swear by this version, I find it a little bit pushy and overbearing. The apple brandy comes on too hard, and the lemon and grenadine end up somewhat underrepresented in the final drink. 

I strongly prefer a 2:1:1 structure. The lemon and grenadine balance each other out, and the apple brandy is a little quieter in the overall mix. This is, however, a drink where you should feel free to experiment with small adjustments to the ratio, as even small differences can radically change the final product. 

Here’s the recipe:

Jack Rose

  • ¾ ounce homemade grenadine

  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 ½ ounce Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy 

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients in a shaking tin.

  2. Add ice, then shake until thoroughly frothed and chilled.

  3. Strain into a coupe or Nick & Nora glass.

  4. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel. 

808s, Jack Roses, Campari, and Heartbreak

Part of the joy of the Jack Rose is its simplicity. The only step that might be considered difficult is making the grenadine, and even that takes just a few minutes. Otherwise, this is a drink that can be put together in short order with a small number of easy-to-find ingredients. 

The flavor profile of a Jack Rose, meanwhile, is an effortless balance of apple, sour citrus, and fruity syrup; it’s an easy drink for even novice cocktail drinkers to enjoy, but just far enough off the beaten path that it should still be interesting to more experienced and adventuresome palates. Also, there’s the color: a deep, alluring, sports-car red. It’s a drink with great visual appeal. It looks like a Valentine’s day cocktail.

If you want to keep the romantic look but add elements of complexity and bitterness, however, try taking that bottle of Campari you picked up last week to make a Boulevardier and using it as part of the spirit base in a Jack Rose variant. 

As I wrote last week, Campari is a kind of mystery elixir, because it can play a surprising variety of roles in cocktails. Often it’s the bitter element. Sometimes it adds sweetness too. And sometimes it can even act as the star of the show — or, at the very least, a co-lead with another spirit. That’s how we’ll use it here. 

This isn’t quite a simple substitution. For this version, you’ll need to re-adjust the ratio a bit, to 4:4:3:3 — essentially an 8:3:3 with a split base — otherwise, it comes out a bit too sweet.

This version also works much better with bonded apple brandy. The 80 proof Applejack just doesn’t have quite enough backbone to hold this drink together. Also, you’ll want to add a tiny pinch of salt, which lightly tempers the bitterness and gives the drink a saline bite. 

The resulting drink is certainly bitter, but it’s not brooding. It’s herbal and complex, yet still extraordinarily drinkable. If anything it’s a little too easy to drink. It’s a showcase for every ingredient — and it retains a lovely red hue, enhanced by the Campari.

Initially, I pitched this as a heartbreak drink, and it certainly can fill that role. But I also think of it as a good relationship drink, one that works from the odd yet delightful strong-sweet-bitter interaction between high-proof apple brandy and Campari. Looked at on paper, it’s a relationship you might not think would work.

The cocktail, meanwhile, has a somewhat unusual shape and structure — yet it’s also informed by the classics. Somehow, with a bit of work and some careful matching, it produces something beautiful...if a little unexpected. It’s kind of romantic, actually. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. 

Bitter Rose

  • Pinch of table salt

  • ¾ ounce homemade grenadine

  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 ounce Campari

  • 1 ounce Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients in a shaking tin.

  2. Add ice, then shake until thoroughly chilled.

  3. Strain into a coupe.

  4. No garnish. 

***

Cocktail Library: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury. Of all the old cocktail books I’ve looked at over the years, this might be my favorite. I expect to have more to say about it soon.

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