Want to instantly up your cocktail game without too much effort? Look no further than oleo saccharum. This old-school ingredient, literally translating to “oily sugar”—or “sugared oil”—was used as far back as the seventeenth century. It’s believed that British sailors made punch with the ingredients largely available to them while traveling—rum, citrus, and tropical spices—then spread their love of this concoction far and wide. The earliest versions of oleo-saccharum involved people rubbing citrus directly against large, hard-packed loaves of sugar to absorb the oil.
And though the term may sound a little complicated, the process for making oleo today is still pretty damn simple. Recipes like this one from Bon Appetit make it clear that all you need are citrus, sugar, and time. Muddle and toss together zest and sugar (being careful not to include the pith, as this can lend undesirable bitterness to the mix), then leave your mixture to sit—for at least three hours and at most a day—so that essential oils from the citrus can emerge. Once the zest is strained out, you’re left with a sweet, acidic, and aromatic syrup that’s more viscous than plain old juice and perfect for oh-so-many applications, but especially for giving punch its, uh, punch.
If you’re looking for a method requiring even less labor and time, you can use a vacuum sealer (if you have one of those, or are looking for an occasion to get one). No matter how you make it, it should last for at least a week, chilled.
English-professor-turned-booze-writer David Wondrich’s 2010 book Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl is the ultimate tome on oleo saccharum and its uses, which can be alcoholic in nature (or not). The aromatic syrup can be a great base for lemonade, a sweetener for iced tea, or part of a vinaigrette for salad. But if you wanna stick to boozy applications, this 4-ingredient rum punch from Wondrich is a more classic approach. Or you may want to give this Extra-Orange Old Fashioned—where the oleo saccharum brings in more orange oils without compromising the drink’s strength—a try. There’s also this cocktail enthusiast’s Atwood, which includes tequila blanco and some additional bitterness from Campari.
No matter what you make, the results are gonna be pretty sweet 😉