Let’s give credit where credit is due: none of us in the modern cocktail world would ever have heard of oleo saccharum, that essential ingredient in a delicious bowl of punch, had it not been for cocktail historian (and occasional frenemy of mine), David Wondrich. From the moment his 2007 book Imbibe! launched, bartenders have been obsessed with proper cocktails, juleps, crustas, smashes and punches.
Prior to this renewed interest in the classical era of drinking, punch was pretty much thought of as, well, jungle juice: a mixture of cheap booze and hyper-sweetened fruit juice that one would typically find in the bathroom of a fraternity house. Now, thanks to Mr. Wondrich, we know that punch is a light, refreshing, well-balanced drink with layers and depth—thanks in part to oleo saccharum.
Oleo saccharum, Latin for “oil sugar” is made by combining fresh peels of citrus (most often lemon) with fine sugar and regularly mixing, until the sugar has leeched the fragrant oils from the skins and made a sort of thick, wet oil that is then combined with the other ingredients to create the punch.
The revival of punch led me, and so many others, to put a daily offering on our cocktail menu. It was an exciting time, and our guests were responding very positively. But the novelty soon wore off, as I was having to come in to the restaurant early every day and tend to the oleo saccharum. So a few years ago I came up with this method that would allow me to pre-prepare the oil ahead of time, without all of the laborious tending.
I took lemon peels and superfine sugar, and tossed them together in a bowl, then placed the whole mixture in a plastic bag and vacuum sealed it. The intense contact between the sugar and the surface area of the peels accelerated the process and over the course of a few hours I was left with a pure, silky oleo saccharum I could use as a base for punch—with no tending required.
But that resulting liquid gold got me thinking about using the beautiful oil in cocktails other than punch. Enter the Espresso Martini. Often finished with the oils from a twist of lemon, we had the idea to incorporate the lemon into the drink with a little oleo saccharum, upping the proof of the vodka just a touch to accommodate the extra splash of sugar. I just hope that our updated recipe does the drink’s creator proud, who sadly passed away recently after a long battle with brain cancer.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bradsell.
Adapted from a recipe by Dick Bradsell
• 1 oz. espresso
• ¾ oz. 100 proof vodka
• ¾ oz Kahlua
• ½ tsp. oleo saccharum*
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and serve without garnish.
*To make oleo saccharum, combine 12 oz. superfine sugar with the peels of eight lemons, peeled with a vegetable peeler in a bowl. Stir to combine, and stir regularly until sugar is dissolved by lemon oils.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS