Those cocktail mixers that you find on the shelves of your average grocery store are jam-packed with food additives and all kinds of scary ingredients. You’d be lucky to find even a residual amount of actual strawberries in a typical Strawberry Daquiri mixer. As a bartender in the Bay Area, Jennifer Colliau saw the need for more natural alternatives and started Small Hand Foods. The company has a simple mission: to provide bartenders with the best possible ingredients for making delicious cocktails.
Colliau makes and bottles each batch by hand and uses nothing but organic, all-natural ingredients. Instead of shopping for produce at a typical wholesalers, she opts to pay just a little bit more for higher quality ingredients from Berkeley Bowl. For anyone interested in starting a small food business, Colliau says that one of the big initial hurdles is finding a space to cook out of. Selling something made in a home kitchen is against the law (although some states certify home kitchens).
Commercial kitchens are available for rental, but they can be expensive and may not have all the equipment you need. “Many people get their starts through the generosity of people already in the industry, myself included. I owe so much to the former owners of Fellini in Berkeley, Camino in Oakland, and of course, to Charles Phan and the entire Phan family of Slanted DoorHeaven’s Dog. Often deals can be worked out when restaurants are closed; i.e. mornings in a dinner-only establishment, or on a Sunday or Monday when a particular restaurant is closed. I start cooking in the afternoon and usually finish midnight or later, because that is when the space I use is available.”
Small Hand Foods’ offerings include Gum Syrup, a one-to-one sugar-to-water simple syrup with gum arabic — a resin from the Acacia tree — incorporated into it. Gum syrup fell out of favor with bartenders because it is difficult to make, but adds not only sweetness but viscosity as well, giving a richer mouthfeel and weightier texture to cocktails. There is also a Pineapple Gum Syrup (an ingredient in the San Francisco classic cocktail Pisco Punch, as well as fixes and cobblers of all kinds), made by pressing organic fruit and blending it with gum syrup, and a Raspberry Gum Syrup, popular in many early cocktail recipes and often substituted for grenadine due to its intense berry color (the flavor, however, is distinctly bushberry, candied and less tannic than grenadine). California has a long raspberry season, making this syrup is available for several months of the year.
Colliau also makes Grenadine, from nothing but fresh pomegranate juice and unrefined cane sugar. This one is a far cry from the ubiquitous cherry-red bottle of syrup (sweetened with HFSC and colored with red #40) one can find at every bar these days. Most of us probably do not even know that grenadine was originally made from pomegranate juice.
Orgeat (pronounced or-zhat) was what started it all. After expressing discontent with mixing “fake” Mai Tais due to a lack of good commercial orgeat, Colliau took her then-boss up on the challenge of creating her own version of this French almond syrup, originally made from barley and used as a shelf-stable milk substitute. Many cultures have versions, from Spanish orxata to Dutch orgeade to Mexican horchata. Colliau’s version is made from real California almonds and a small proportion of apricot kernels to give it a distinct “marzipan” flavor without the addition of extract, as well as organic cane sugar and French orange flower water to provide some delicate floral notes.
Small Hand Foods’ mixers can be found behind the bars of select Bay Area establishments, but if you talk to your local bartender and ask them to start stocking all natural, organic mixers, chances are they will (depending on how good of a patron you are). If not, at least you can order some to stock your home bar with.
Mai Tai (adapted from Trader Vic’s, Oakland, 1944)
1½ oz aged Jamaican rum
½ oz Cointreau or good orange curaçao
½ oz orgeat
¾ oz fresh lime juice (save a spent lime half)
Put all ingredients into a mixing tin, along with a spent lime half. Shake vigorously, then pour entire contents into a double old-fashioned glass. “Spank” a sprig of mint by smacking it between your palms, then garnish the cocktail.