I’m not a soda drinker, but I can’t resist the homemade ginger ale with fresh mint at Northstar Cafe in Columbus: spicy, sparkly and just the thing to cut through the summer steam. So I’ve started to make my own simple ginger syrup at home so I can call up a fresh one – spiked or not – when occasion presents.
Northstar is a local Columbus mini-chain that feels airlifted from California into central Ohio. Every time I go, I try and fail to order something other than the astonishingly good veggie burger, tender as meat, served with a pile of expertly dressed greens on the side. With a fresh ginger ale, refreshing and soothing in the way that ginger ale was meant to be, it’s a west coast kind of meal.
Golden ginger ale, dark, spicy and similar to brewed ginger beer from England, was invented by an American apothecary in the mid-19th century, followed by the invention of dry ginger ale, paler and lighter, by Canadian pharmacist who patented the name “Canada Dry.” The preference for ginger ale as a light alcoholic mixer instead of a strongly-flavored standalone drink has persisted to such an extent that most of the dry ginger ale sold today has little or no real ginger in it at all.
Fresh ginger is valued around the world for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Ginger adds a tingly kick that works in both sweets and savory dishes. Hot ginger tea with lemon and honey is a common cold remedy. Ginger has been hailed for anti-nausea, pain relief and inflammation-reducing properties.
But me, I just love the taste of it.
Ginger syrup is made simply with chopped ginger root, sugar and water, and it’s easy to keep a jar of it in the refrigerator. To make ginger ale, all you need is a glass of ice, a bit of syrup and a lot of sparkling water. Lime or lemon add a nice touch, and in the summer fresh mint or aromatic basil turn an old-fashioned drink into a seasonal delight.
I found this recipe, originally from Imbibe Magazine, via the talented Joy the Baker, who has an entertaining visual walkthrough on homemade ginger ale. I love how she hand-labels her ginger syrup bottle and ties it with a bow – adorable and practical. I label nothing – lazy, and my scrawl is illegible – and as a result my nephew once poured balsamic vinaigrette on his ice cream, thinking it was (cold) hot fudge sauce.
For less than the price of one ginger ale at a restaurant, you can make a jar of ginger syrup that will make a half-dozen fresh ginger ales at home.
Peeling ginger is easy if you have a good vegetable peeler. It’s also easier with young ginger that hasn’t had a chance to get tough.
Pile the cut ginger into a pot.
And water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Then go do something else for an hour.
The liquid reduces down to a shiny amber syrup.
Strain the syrup into a jar, and what you have left is semi-candied ginger. A little goes a long way, but I like to eat a few pieces here and there as a spicy sweet.
A good guideline for ginger ale is 1/3 ginger syrup, 2/3 sparkling water, over a lot of ice and a little lime. Fresh mint, also used in Northstar’s version, is the ideal summer cocktail herb, but fragrant basil makes an excellent and unexpected substitute. My mint is sparse this year, but my basil plant is thriving.
It’s not so easy to replicate the veggie burger at home, but homemade ginger ale goes great with anything. Except maybe balsamic vinaigrette and ice cream.
Fresh Ginger Ale with Basil
I love the homemade ginger ale so much at Columbus’s Northstar Cafe that I had to make some of my own. Mint in my garden is sparse this year, but basil makes a fresh, unexpected substitute. This ginger syrup recipe comes from Hollywood’s Grub Restaurant via Imbibe Magazine and is outstanding for cocktails as well as ginger ale.
Ginger syrup ingredients
- 8-10 ounces fresh ginger (about 2 cups)
- 2 cups sugar
- 6 cups water
Ginger syrup directions
- Peel ginger if you are saving it to eat later (see note below). Slice thinly or chop ginger into small pieces and place in medium pot.
- Add sugar and water to the pot and stir. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for one hour until liquid reduces to an amber syrup.
- Strain the syrup through cheese cloth or a fine sieve (twice if you like) into a large jar or bottle. Refrigerate.
Ginger ale ingredients
- Ginger syrup
- Soda water or sparkling mineral water
- Fresh basil (or mint)
- Lime or lemon wedges
Ginger ale directions
- Fill a glass with ice, basil leaves and lime or lemon wedge. Add ginger syrup to fill 1/3 of the glass and muddle with a spoon to release juice from citrus and oil from basil.
- Fill rest of glass with sparkling water and serve.
- Save the ginger from syrup-making for ginger candy, or simply refrigerate or freeze and snack on it at your leisure. It packs a punch, but it’s sweet, spicy and excellent for digestion.
- Ginger syrup is great for cocktails too. Spike your ale with rum, bourbon or vodka, or try a sleepyhead, with orange, lemon, mint and brandy.
Here’s the link to a printable version.