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I tried following the recipe here to try to create a Sichuan peppercorn simple syrup. The recipe is basically to add slightly crushed peppercorn to sugar and water, allow to simmer, take off the heat, and repeat. The end result was tasty, but it did not have the same mouth numbing effect that I was hoping for except for with the leftover peppercorn in the syrup.

How can I get the mouth numbing effect into a syrup, and why did the above method not work? The Wikipedia article on hydroxy alpha sanshool suggests you can extract it with a distillation method although that seems like a bit of overkill when I am just trying to make cocktails at home (and when I don't own a condenser or distillation flask).

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  • Green Sichuan peppercorns tend to have more numbing effect than red peppercorns, so you may want to consider looking for those. – mbjb Jul 24 '20 at 6:23
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    I don't know why but I have a feeling that in the linked recipe they didn't mentioned puting lid on. For me that would be the distilation that goes right back to the brew. – SZCZERZO KŁY Jul 24 '20 at 7:11
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    I would first verify the peppercorns are going to give you the numbing effect to begin with before you spend a lot of time on your method. You could be doing everything right but the source material doesn't have the properties you're looking for. – GdD Jul 24 '20 at 7:46
  • @GdD they definitely did, part of what confused me was the peppercorn left in still very much does numb my tongue, it apparently just didn't impart that upon the liquid – qfwfq Jul 24 '20 at 15:39
  • @SZCZERZOKŁY you're definitely right, it did not. Given that distillation method I'll definitely leave the lid on next time – qfwfq Jul 24 '20 at 15:40
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The reason you didn't get the numbing effect is because the hydroxy alpha sanshool is an alcohol that is largely soluble in oils not water.

When boiled it will come off in the steam and escape the boiling process in that manner. If you distill it, it will collect as an oil not as an ethanol/water soluble product. I doubt that putting the lid on the pot will collect significant amounts, or if they do collect enough to form droplets, they will be as fine oil layer on the surface of the liquid or on the lid of the pot.

I note that the extraction protocol mentioned on its wikipedia page includes ethanol and notes that the yield is low (~60%) of the available chemical. Boiling alone in water is not sufficient to extract any significant quantity.

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  • Yeah, if the extraction with water isn't working, the obvious next step would be different solvents; one might try making an infusion using room-temperature vodka or grain alcohol, or, failing that, take a cue from actual Sichuan cooking and infuse some oil with the peppercorns - the trouble with that last part would be figuring out how to actually incorporate a flavoured oil into a cocktail. – Blargant Jul 24 '20 at 14:52
  • A room temperature infusion in neutral alcohol has the advantage that it could be left for days or longer in a sealed jar. You may want to use the strongest neutral spirit available, to maximise extraction. Then that would be easy to incorporate. Whether the crucial compound would survive a subsequent reduction of the infused spirit would be an experiment worth trying – Chris H Jul 24 '20 at 15:33
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    foodb.ca/compounds/FDB000722 says it's not water soluble anyway – Chris H Jul 24 '20 at 15:42
  • @ChrisH it survives a wok so I'd think it should survive a reduction in alcohol, although I do think that you usually add it at the very end in things like stir fry. I definitely have a set of chemistry experiments to try, and honestly am now a little tempted to get a distillation setup. Thanks for the help all – qfwfq Jul 24 '20 at 16:45
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After reading @bob1's very helpful answer I ran a couple tests and found that the hydroxy alpha sanshool does seem to be soluble in alcohol such that it could be infused. In my first test I left a pinch of peppercorn in a splash of 80 proof vodka (didn't measure either) and left it for around 6-8 hours. It tasted horrible but did numb my mouth. In my second test I left a tablespoon of red peppercorn in 80ml of 84 proof mezcal for about 18 hours, which again did numb my mouth although not as strongly. I also chewed on a couple of the leftover peppercorn which had no effect, leading me to believe I did successfully extract the hydroxy alpha sanshool.

My final conclusion to my question is that trying to get the mouth numbing effect into a water and sugar based syrup is not worthwhile or really even possible, but you definitely can get the effect into a cocktail by infusing alcohol.

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    Nice. The next step is to see how concentrated you can get it by this method. If you could get it concentrated enough you might be able to add small amounts to a water based syrup and still get the effect you desire. This would be similar to adding something like vanilla extract - which is also ethanol based. Ground pepper will probably give you biggest bang-for-buck as well as being quickest. – bob1 Jul 27 '20 at 22:16
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    If what you want is "Sichuan peppercorn numbing in a cocktail", see if a local distillery makes an amaro using Sichuan peppercorns as a flavorant. I have a bottle of one so they certainly exist. – Silenced Temporarily Jul 28 '20 at 16:12

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