One of the first steps to take when upping your cocktail game is making your own simple syrup. This accurately named versatile ingredient can be made with inexpensive items found in almost every kitchen. You can even find the ingredients for simple syrup in most gas stations or coffee shops for those times when emergency cocktails are required. In addition to cocktails, simple syrup is great for sweetening other chilled beverages such as iced tea and iced coffee.
The most basic simple syrup recipe is 1 part sugar + 1 part hot water. I find that 1 cup of each ingredient makes a nice sized batch for home use that can be used up before it goes bad. The process is simple and can be changed to fit your preference. I usually toss a cup of sugar into a pan, add the water, and put the pot over medium heat. Stir a couple of times while the mix heats to a boil and remove from heat once it starts boiling. Some folks recommend boiling the water before adding the sugar to avoid burning the sugar, however, I have made simple syrup thousands of times and have never burnt the sugar. I do believe in freedom of choice, so use whatever method you prefer. Cool the syrup and store in the refrigerator a month or so.
In addition to the stove top method, I have used a microwave- mixing the water and sugar in a glass container and microwaving for 3-5 minutes. I have also added hot water from an electric water boiler to the sugar and stirred until the sugar is dissolved. It makes no difference- do whatever is easiest for you.
Using this formula as a foundation, you can begin experimenting by choosing different sugars or by steeping any combination of herbs, spices, or fruits in the warm syrup. Try citrus zest, cinnamon, lavender, mint, hot peppers, tea, or any combination of these to get unique flavors.
Steep times vary from ingredient to ingredient and can also vary according to your taste preferences. For a steep, remove the syrup from the heat once the sugar is dissolved, add flavor agents, stir, and cover for the desired length of time. Our mint julep recipe calls for mint simple syrup. The mint syrup is a 24 hour steep because we want a concentrated mint flavor for that cocktail. We find this to be true of citrus as well. You really can’t steep those too long. However lavender and cinnamon both require less time because their flavor can quickly overpower a cocktail.
Even if you do over steep the flavored syrup, all is not lost. If your syrup is too strong, add unflavored syrup a little at a time until you reach your desired flavor concentration. It is really that easy!
In regard to sugar- you can use whatever you have handy. I prefer to use evaporated cane sugar over white, refined sugar because it adds a little complexity without overwhelming other flavors in the cocktail. I know many others who prefer the ease and purity of flavor of regular white sugar. We have listed some sugar options below with a brief flavor profile. Each will add flavor nuances that can take a cocktail to the next level when used correctly.
Refined White Sugar – The 5 lb bag of sugar that we all know at the grocery store is made of either natural cane or beets and will produce a straightforward sweet, colorless, clear simple syrup. This is a good sugar to use when you do not want your syrup to affect the color of your beverage in any way.
Natural Cane Sugar- 100% sugar made from sugarcane and has a slight blonde color variation from refined white sugar. Cane sugar has a mild sugarcane flavor- almost like someone added one drop of molasses to refined sugar. I find that it provides a nice structure for the flavors of a cocktail to sit upon without overwhelming anything. It will produce a simple syrup that is more blonde in color than clear.
Turbinado Sugar or Sugar in the Raw- Turbinado sugar is made from pure cane sugar extract. Turbinado references the technique used in the process of making this sugar where the sugar is spun in a cylinder or turbine. Turbinado sugar is not as processed as white sugar and will still retain a slight molasses flavor. It produces a slightly darker syrup than natural cane sugar.
Demerara Sugar- Technically demerara is a light brown cane sugar originally from Guyana. Often turbinado sugar is substituted though the syrup is still labeled Demerara. It produces a syrup similar in color to light brown sugar.
Light and Dark Brown Sugars- Traditionally brown sugar is what is left when making traditional white refined sugar after it has been sent through the evaporator. Modern brown sugar is most likely refined white sugar that has molasses added to it. Less molasses for light brown sugar (typically 3.5%) and more for dark brown sugar (typically 6.5%) according to Rose Levy Beranbaum. They perform virtually the same way. The flavor profile with dark brown sugar will obviously have a deeper molasses flavor to it. They produce darker syrups that work well with darker spirits.
Muscovado Sugar- This amazing sugar is from the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa.
It is unrefined cane sugar in which the molasses is not removed at all. It usually comes labeled ‘light’ (with less molasses) or ‘dark.’ It is not as dry as other sugars and has an intense deep molasses flavor. It produces a dark, rich syrup
Piloncillo or Panela- This sugar commonly found in Latin Groceries is cane juice that has been boiled down to a thick, crystalline syrup. It is then poured into cone-shaped molds to harden. It is what brown sugar wants to be, but has been too processed to be in the same category. The rich flavor profile is one of the ultimate sugars for achieving depth of flavor. Definitely the most bang for your buck. It produces a syrup similar in color to dark brown sugar, but not as dark as Muscovado sugar.