Just Add Water: Cordials Put to the Test

Forget the green stuff of your youth, today’s tipples are adult affairs spiked with ginger, bitters and the like.

Article by Besha Rodell

Shrubs and kombucha have their place, but this summer, T Australia’s food critic, Besha Rodell, will be reaching for the cordial. Photography by Katherine Sousa.

I cannot remember the last time I drank proper old-school cordial, but I can recall the flavour in extreme detail. In many ways, cordial is the taste of my childhood, a staple of Australian summers, along with Icy Poles and Paddle Pops. But when I moved to the United States, there was none — America has popsicles, but cordial is not common there. (Children are much more likely to drink “soda”, that sugary concoction I was not allowed as a child.)

Cordial has lost its hold on Australian consumers in recent years, but a few companies are bucking the trend and bringing new products to market — ones that are more likely to appeal to gourmet-minded shoppers.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call any of the cordials in this taste test healthy — by definition, cordial is sugar syrup — but many boast far more natural ingredients than the orange or raspberry versions of yesteryear. In fact, with their adult flavours, a few of these have made wonderful additions to my home bar, mixing extremely well with gin, vodka and even whisky.

Yarra Valley Apple & Ginger Cordial

My absolute favourite flavour back in the day was apple, so I was particularly excited to try this apple and ginger cordial. Composed of almost 50 per cent juice, it’s a cloudy concoction that was a bit tepid when mixed with tap water, but it came alive when I used soda water. The spiciness of the ginger balances the overall sweetness nicely, but I found the best use for it was a hot toddy made with Irish whisky. I usually make my toddies with some sort of tea and honey, but this replaced both of those elements and the fruity apple gave it a lovely autumnal aroma. $11, yarravalleygourmetfoods.com.au

Alchemy Heat Cordial

Alchemy makes several cordials, including a Love version that tastes of rose petals and lime, and one that tastes of honeydew melon. But the Heat cordial — infused with lemon and chilli — is the strangest and was the company’s original flavour. I was hoping for something that might pair well with tequila or mescal, perhaps enhance a spicy margarita, but I found this one a tad medicinal. It is definitely spicy, enough that I’d caution parents to keep it away from spice-averse children — though if your kids, like mine, love fiery food, they may just love this as well. $15.40,  alchemycordial.com.au

Stir Crazy Tangelo & Grapefruit Bitters

By far my favourite of the bunch, this cordial is made with fresh fruit by an ex-chef named Helen Kline. Many of the cordials I tasted bordered on being too sweet, but this one allows the citrus notes to sing and isn’t the least bit cloying. Mixed with sparkling water, it reminded me of Sanpellegrino Limonata: refreshing and balanced with just the right hint of bitterness. It was fantastic mixed with gin and soda water, too. Side note: Stir Crazy offers free delivery in metro Melbourne and on Victoria’s Surf Coast for orders over $45. I ordered only one bottle and paid the $20 shipping charge, but they got in touch to say they felt bad I’d paid so much for such a small order and offered to bring it to me, throwing in an extra bottle of cordial to make up for the shipping cost. Now that’s service! $15, stircrazylady.com.au

Roar Passion Power Cordial

Roar makes six varieties, all with raw sugar and natural ingredients, including a pineapple cordial and one that tastes like plum pudding. The passionfruit and lime flavour was the most like an old-fashioned cordial of all those I tried: unabashedly sweet, it’s more like a lolly than the fruit it’s made from. I wished for a bit more pure passionfruit and a bit less jammy-ness, but a drop or two in some soda water, or as an ingredient in a tiki drink, goes a mighty long way. $12.95, roarliving.com.au

Ashbolt Elderflower No Added Sugar Concentrate

This is the one cordial I found that has no added sugar whatsoever — the sweetness comes from grape juice concentrate. The brand does offer a more traditional cordial made with sugar, but I actually prefer this one. As you might expect, the flavour is a little more adult than the other cordials I tasted, and the addition of apple cider vinegar delivers an acidic counterbalance to the natural sweetness — if you like kombucha, you’ll probably like this. The elderflower element is subtle but recognisable, like a waft of perfume. I found this a lovely addition to tap water and will have fun playing with it at my home bar. $16, ashbolt.com.au