If you have been reading along, you have probably seen me mention simple syrup. In most cases, I try to briefly explain, but you may be wondering, What is it? Can I buy it somewhere? Is it hard to make? Why don't I hear more about this stuff? For the cocktail enthusiast, simple syrup is almost taken for granted. It's a necessity—an ingredient that you must have on hand. But the average cocktail consumer may not even know why they need it. It's crucial to so many recipes and yet so basic that it is rarely explained. I'd like to show you what simple syrup is, how to make it, and why you should have it around.
It's Sugar, of course!
It really is that simple. The most basic recipe for simple syrup is to measure one part sugar and one part water and combine them. When the sugar dissolves in the water, you have simple syrup. But why go through the trouble? You could buy simple syrup—there are bottled versions at grocery stores and liquor stores—but there's little point when it's so easy to make. Again, you might ask, why bother? Will I ever really need it? If you start to research some of your favorite cocktails (mojitos, margaritas, sours, juleps, mai tais, to name just a few) you'll find that simple syrup, gum syrup or sirop de gomme (I'll explain these names shortly) creeps into many recipes. In fact, the original historic definition of the cocktail is a drink that includes spirits, sugar, water and bitters.
Good Enough For Coffee and Tea
So, you recognize that many drinks contain simple syrup, but why not use plain old white sugar? I mean, if it's good enough for coffee and tea, why not cocktails? This is where we really get down to the science of the matter. Sugar in it's dry, crystalized form needs to dissolve in order for you to taste the sweet flavor. This happens very quickly in hot beverages like coffee or tea where the water acts as a solvent and the heat helps melt the crystals. However, you may have seen how sugar takes a long time to dissolve in iced tea. Cold temperatures are also working against you in a cocktail. Simple syrup, on the other hand, mixes easily because it's already in liquid form. Think of simple syrup as a pre-dissolved version of a sugar cube. But it's more than just a time saver for busy bartenders. Alcohol actually inhibits sugar crystals from dissolving, so using a syrup makes it possible to sweeten a spiritous cocktail easily, even if it contains little to no water or juice.
Some recipes may indeed call for granulated sugar or a sugar cube. In the case of an old fashioned, for instance, versions that call for sugar instead of syrup will include wetting the sugar cube with bitters or with a small amount of water and then muddling the crystals, breaking them down into tiny bits until they are basically dissolved anyway. I find that using simple syrup is just easier.
What About the Water?
Using syrup to sweeten a drink does introduce some water to the equation. How much water depends on the syrup. As I stated above, the most basic recipe involves equal portions of sugar and water, but many bartenders like to use a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water for a sweeter syrup with a higher concentration of sugar. Doing so is perfectly acceptable and you can sometimes get away with using less syrup in a recipe, but like everything in life, achieving the proper balance is usually a matter of taste. It is also harder to dissolve twice the sugar in water and many choose to heat the water in a sauce pan, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved. Using the stovetop to make your syrup and simmering the mixture for a few minutes also helps prevent initial contamination. Storing syrup in the refrigerator will extend its life to weeks or months, but I like to add an ounce of vodka. This will preserve the syrup almost indefinitely.
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
Stir sugar and water in a sauce pot over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns clear. Simmer for a few minutes, remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour into a clean jar or bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator. Option: Add an ounce or two of vodka as a preservative.
Advanced Techniques? It's Not Rocket Science
Once you make a simple syrup and use it in a few drinks, you're on your way to making great cocktails. You will also gain an appreciation for detail when recipes call for a 2:1 syrup or some additional flavor that you may not know about. A century ago, when sugar was available in loaves, simple syrups were sometimes described as "rock candy" syrup. The implication here is that the concentration of sugar was so strong that it would often crystalize inside the bottle forming familiar chunks, like candy. This is why some syrups contain gum arabic, an emulsifier which holds the sugar in solution and prevents crystallization. This gomme syrup, or sirop de gomme is still mentioned in many recipes, but after prohibition, most bartenders found simple syrup to be sufficient. Modern mixologists have begun to resurrect this component because it contributes a silky mouthfeel to cocktails in addition to the expected sweetness.
One obvious enhancement to a simple syrup is to use something other than basic white granulated sugar. Some of the top craft bars use Demerara Syrup made from raw cane sugar. I have also seen recipes that call for Honey Syrup. Honey has a fantastic flavor but does not mix easily and tends go straight to the bottom of a cold beverage. It will work better slightly diluted at a 2:1 ratio with water. Some drinks call for Agave Nectar which is a syrup you can buy that comes from the Agave plant used to make tequila. I have even seen recipes that call for regular old Maple Syrup!
The more exciting variations come from infusing herbal ingredients or using juice as a base. Instead of water, concentrates like passion fruit or ginger juice make for some incredible syrups. Also, it's easy enough to infuse items like mint leaves, lavender, cinnamon, chinese five-spice or vanilla. The variety of possibilities seems limited only by your imagination. Indeed, a flavored syrup can even be used to make soda by pouring it over ice and adding sparkling water—like a manual soda machine! Ever tried homemade ginger ale? If you really like a drink that requires a specialty syrup, go for it, but it's easy to get carried away. Often, the flavor you are going for can be added when mixing the drink, so don't limit yourself if storage space is a concern.
One subject of debate revolves around the process of mixing the sugar with water. Many choose to make syrup in a sauce pot over the stove. Hot water will dissolve the sugar much faster and the result can be sterilized in the process. A 2:1 syrup made this way and stored in a sanitized bottle can basically last indefinitely. However, others say that this technique results in a "cooked" or caramel flavor. The argument extends into sugar science with the theory that heating sucrose changes its chemical make up. They opt for a cold process involving purified water and a lot of jar-shaking. I've done both and I can't really tell any difference.
I suppose I never realized there was so much to say about simple syrup. Still, I find that it continues to draw questions. Most of the time it's related to the concentration of sugar. Some like 2:1 and others like 1:1. I like to know what the recipe calls for, and when it does not specify, it's up to you. After all, if you are mixing the cocktail, you control the flavor. Don't be afraid of adjustments. Try new things. Make some simple syrup and try some great cocktails! I just checked my mint plant and found there are still some good sprigs out there. Anticipating a fall warm-up, why not make some simple syrup and whip up a mojito?
2 oz white rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
3 oz sparkling water
1 large sprig of spearmint
Add the spearmint and simple syrup to a 16 ounce glass and muddle. No need to overwork the mint here—be gentle or it will only become bitter. Next, add the rum, the lime juice and the sparkling water. Top up with crushed ice and stir until chilled.