Elderflower Syrup

By | Tuesday, August 04, 2015 2 comments
Sambucus canadensis 'Wyldewood 1'

When I was planning my garden a few years ago, I decided that I wanted to have elderberries. I found a study done by the University of Missouri which concluded that the most fruitful variety of elderberry was a tree named 'Wyldewood 1'. It turns out that the only place to get them is from Wyldewood Cellars in Kansas. At the time, they were not prepared to ship plants to California. After some work learning about the requirements of the California Dept. of Agriculture and several hours on the phone, I was able to convince them to go through the process of having one of their trees inspected and sent to me. Thus, I became the first owner of a Sambucus Canadensis 'Wyldewood 1' in California. Over the years it has grown to become a fine specimen.

Last year when the tree was in full bloom I invited my friend Sean to join me in making elderflower liqueur. I picked a bucket of the most fragrant flowers, then Sean and I each spent an hour snipping the tiny flowers from the flower heads for our batches of liqueur.

We were working from a recipe that we found online at honest-food.net. It indicated that we should infuse Everclear or vodka with the elderflowers for “…at least a few days…” but, the author noted “I typically hold mine for two weeks, although I used to do a month.” After infusion, one strains the liquid and adds simple syrup. Sean took his jar of vodka and flowers home, and I put mine in my root cellar to rest. After two weeks I opened my mason jar and strained it. Not sure how sweet I wanted it, I experimented with small samples, varying the amount of simple syrup. The results were mediocre at best. No amount of variation in sweetness made a product that I particularly wanted to drink. It had more of a vegetable taste than a flowery one. I tried experimenting with various ways of improving the flavor: adding lemon juice, lemon zest, limoncello, water, additional vodka, and so on. I tried everything I could think of with no success. I checked on the St. Germaine web site to see if they had any suggestions, but, unsurprisingly their recipe is a closely held secret. I emailed Sean asking him how his liqueur had turned out. He said that it was revolting, so he had thrown it away.

I didn’t tell Sean, but I was embarrassed about the time and effort we had put in for such poor results. I was also anxious about the possibility that my elderflower tree produced flowers that were unsuitable for culinary use. Perhaps, I worried, all of my effort to get this particular elderberry tree had been not just a waste of time, but actively counterproductive.

This year, with the tree grown even larger, the supply of elderflowers was enormous. I was reluctant to drag anyone else into further folly without having a better idea of how to use the bounty of my tree, so, I proceeded on my own. I decided to start by trying to making elderflower syrup for soft drinks.

As before I gathered a bucket of fresh, beautiful, fragrant flowers. I spent considerable time snipping the flowers from their clusters, trying to get as little of the stems as possible – both to avoid the vegetable quality of my failed liqueur and because the greens are slightly toxic. Part way through I discovered that it was actually much easier to pull the flowers off by hand that to cut them off with scissors. Every recipe I have seen refers to cutting, snipping, etc., but for me, bare fingers were really the way to go. If you are working with elderflowers, I recommend giving the hands-on approach a try.

There are many more recipes for elderflower syrup than there are for liqueur. Most of them are quite similar. I chose to base my syrup on one from The Huffington Post.

Here is my (heavily edited) version of their recipe:

  • 1 Kg (2.2lbs) sugar
  • 5 Cups water
  • 2 Cups elderflower blossoms
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • Optional:
    • 1 tsp citric acid
    • and/or replace part of the sugar with dextrose and/or fructose (corn syrup)
Mix the sugar and water, adding either citric acid or dextrose and/or fructose. Bring to a boil over medium heat. If using citric acid, boil for 5 minutes after the sugar has dissolved to invert part of the sugar.

Put the flowers and lemon slices in a non-reactive bowl. Pour the hot syrup over them, stirring gently. Cover with foil or a tea towel and let sit in a dark place for 3-4 days, stirring daily.

Strain the syrup and then filter it through a pre-wetted coffee filter. Note that even with filtering a lot of pollen will remain in the syrup. Though it has no impact on the taste, it settles out and looks unattractive. To make a clear product, put the syrup in bottles and decant repeatedly over several days until it is clear enough for presentation.

If it isn’t going to be used immediately, the syrup should be refrigerated, or it can be frozen or stored using standard canning techniques.

[Side note: the author of the blog on Huffington Post provides a recipe that works well, but I believe she is slightly mistaken about the purpose of the citric acid. In her posting she says “It acts as a natural preservative, and helps the syrup stay fresh longer.” However that isn’t really an issue here as the sugar and lemon are preservatives. A whole lemon on average contains about 3 grams of citric acid which is almost as much as the 4.5 grams found in a teaspoon of citric acid powder. Also, if you want to store this syrup you must still take further actions to preserve it, such as refrigeration or canning.

What is really happening with the citric acid in this recipe is that it is being used as a catalyst for inverting the sugar. Sucrose, a polysaccharide, is said to “invert” when it is split into its two components: glucose (dextrose) and fructose. You can invert sugar by boiling it with water. The longer it is boiled, the more of the sucrose will invert. Adding acid causes the inversion reaction to happen more rapidly. A sucrose solution will tend to crystallize over time. The presence of other sugars interferes with crystal formation, so, boiling the solution for 5 minutes with citric acid results in a syrup that is less likely to form sugar crystals (“sugaring off.”) If you don’t have citric acid, or choose not to use it, you can add fructose or dextrose, or boil the sugar solution for more than 5 minutes to achieve the same result. Or you can forget about it and just use the syrup before it crystallizes.]

The elderflower syrup thus created is great with soda water for a cooling summer beverage, and is also excellent over crushed ice.

Having succeeded in making a delicious syrup, I got to thinking about elderflower liqueur again. First I tried simply putting some of my syrup into vodka. The result was 10 times better than last years’ liqueur, but I think it tasted more like elderflower syrup in vodka than real liqueur. [More on this later, but I assume that the difference between an alcohol infusion to which sugar-water is added and a sugar-water infusion to which alcohol is added, is a function of which flavinoids dissolve in water vs. alcohol. If you have further insight into this, please let us know in the comments below.]

Next I put a batch of carefully picked elderflowers in vodka. This time I tasted it after 24 hours. It already had a lot of the flowery flavor I was looking for, but there were also already some vegetable notes. I removed half and let the other half go for another 24 hours. The portion that infused for 48 hours had (to my palate) only slightly more flower flavor, but considerably more vegetable elements. After adding simple syrup I judged the 24 hour infusion to be good, and the 48 hour infusion to be just OK. It was clear to me that 48 hours was a bit much and the 2 to 4 weeks suggested by the honest-food.net author was vastly too long. Though the short-infusion liqueur was good, no one would ever mistake it for St. Germaine, and I doubt anyone would choose my infusion experiments over the bottled product.

I can’t help wondering why I succeeded in making a delicious elderflower syrup, but continued to fail to make elderflower liqueur that is worth drinking. I suspect that the core of the issue is that alcohol is too strong a solvent for my elderflowers, but there are a number of possibilities:

  • To infuse elderflowers into alcohol, maybe I need to do something special to avoid extraction of flavors from the stems. Possibly this involves a technique for removing 100% of the green material, or maybe the flowers must be dried or otherwise processed first. Perhaps there is a temperature, pressure, additive, or steam/cooking process that allows the flower flavor to come out without the green taste.
  • Alcohol and water are both strong solvents. Perhaps pure alcohol extracts only the desired flower flavors, while using vodka allows the flavonoids in the stems to be released as well.
  • In making the non-alcoholic syrup, simple syrup is poured over the flowers while hot from the stove, thus partially cooking them. The vodka infusion is a cold process. The hot syrup might influence the way the flavors are extracted.
  • Perhaps the flowers of Sambucus Canadensis ‘Wyldewood 1’ are too delicate for alcohol infusion. Or perhaps the stems of this plant contain more or stronger flavors than other varieties of Sambucus. Maybe my plant’s stems include elements that more readily dissolve in alcohol. Or perhaps this variety of elderberry, grown in my terroir, expresses these undesirable flavors in alcohol.
Next year I may try other experiments with different techniques, or flowers from different trees, to see if I can solve the mystery. But, at least I know my tree can produce delicious syrup, the fruits are excellent, and it is wildly productive.
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  1. Andrew recently gave me a bottle of this Elderflower Syrup. We drank it sparkling water. Unbelievably delicious. Aromatic, a rich flavor, just the right amount of sweet -- a syrup to aspire to. Thank you for the recipe.

  2. I heard that you need to collect the flowers early in the morning, as they get ranker as the day goes on. the one time I made fritters, they were quite gross. Next year, I`ll try to collect them before work and see if they make a tastier treat.


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