Forrest Butler and his wife, Emily Butters
Courtesy of Royal Rose Simple Syrup

When life gave Forrest Butler lemons, he made lemon syrup. Butler, a former designer and architect, lost his job in 2008, and so he returned to bartending. An avid mixologist, he noticed that all of the syrups necessary for his increasingly popular cocktails were laden with preservatives. So one day he began making his own. 

Sales of cocktails with his syrups soared; after some experimenting with larger-scale production, he and his wife, Emily Butters, founded Royal Rose Simple Syrup, an upscale line of syrups made with organic cane sugar, herbs and spices and containing no artificial preservatives or flavors. The line features unique flavors like cardamom-clove, lavender-lemon and hot ginger-lime (just the thing for a Moscow mule or a dark and stormy). Butler spoke with The Root about his trek from looking for work in one field to becoming an innovator in another.

The Root: Did you grow up in a food-passionate household? 

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Forrest Butler: I didn’t grow up in a food-passionate household. My parents wouldn’t be considered “foodies” by any stretch of the imagination. However, when I reflect on childhood meals and gatherings, the cuisine was primarily Southern soul food. We would always have baked mac and cheese, hot-water cornbread, cornbread stuffing, sauteed liver and onions, pork loin, gumbo with andouille, and shrimp and dirty rice.

TR: What started you making syrups, and when did you find a passion for it?

FB: I first started making syrups 10, 12 years ago for personal use. At that time, there was nothing on the shelf that didn’t contain artificial additives or preservatives. Needless to say, I didn’t want to mix the artificial store-bought stuff with the beautiful craft spirit that I had just purchased.

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TR: What made you decide to pursue syrups as a business?

FB: I lost my architectural-design job in the fall of 2008. I couldn’t get another job in arch-design to save my life. So I went back into bartending [in New York City] to pay my bills. And I was also an instructor at a bartending school in Manhattan. It was summer of 2010, and I had a few bartending shifts at Tandem in Brooklyn.

My wife was canning peaches that she had purchased from the Park Slope Food Coop. I asked her if I could use the juice to make syrup for the bar that night. She said go for it! But after two minutes of infusing the sugar, Emily elbowed me out of the way and added fresh basil leaves, vanilla beans and black pepper. All of a sudden I had peach-basil-vanilla-black pepper syrup. I took the Ball jar to the bar and mixed it with gin and rum cocktails. The Ball jar was empty within 30 minutes. The syrup was a hit! 

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And at this time, there was nothing on the consumer shelf that I felt was worthy of being mixed with a nice craft spirit. So, after the peach-syrup success, I came home and asked my wife what she thought about creating the best syrups on the market. She had the summer off from her elementary teaching gig in the Bronx, so we decided to go for it. We had no idea what was involved in selling a bottled product. It took us eight months to figure out how to create a shelf-stable [product] without adding the chemical and artificial stabilizers or preservatives.

At any rate, we created our LLC during the fall of 2010 and sold our first bottle in April 2011. Within a few months of being on the shelf, a national retailer reached out to us to become a retail partner. At that point, we knew we had something special.

TR: And finally, can you give me a couple of recipes for especially winter-appropriate cocktails using your syrups?

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FB: We developed a Champagne-cocktail starter kit. The kit contains our raspberry syrup and anise syrup.

For a raspberry sparkler, use vodka; for an anise sparkler, use dark or spiced rum.

1. Add 1/2 ounce syrup, 1 ounce spirit (vodka or rum), 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice and ice in a cocktail shaker.

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2. Shake until well combined and icy.

3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or champagne flute and top with 2 ounces of champagne. Garnish with a raspberry or lemon twist.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter