Simple – and not so simple – syrups.
As you will have noticed a fair number of cocktail recipes call for some kind of syrup. Usually simple syrup but often some other variation. I’ve given a rough explanation of those as we went along but maybe it’s time for a bit more detail.
Our base level syrup is something we call “simple syrup” or “1:1 simple” and there’s just nothing to it. Boil some water and add it to an equal amount of white sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Easy.
But why? Well, simple syrup allows us to sweeten a cocktail (to balance sourness or bitterness) with a liquid that we can measure in our jigger, just like all our other ingredients. Thus it’s faster and less messy than using actual granulated sugar. Of course white sugar doesn’t add much flavour and this is where all those variations come in. We’ll get back to those in a minute. The avid cocktailien should always have a bottle of simple syrup in their fridge so it’s worth going into a bit more detail than the above recipe. Firstly the usual equal volumes simple syrup is just a little off. Water is heavier than sugar and the more astute bartender will make an equal weights simple syrup. In the good ole metric system 100ml of water weighs exactly 100g (wow – what a lucky coincidence!) so there’s really no point in weighing your water. Sugar, depending on how fine it is, will come in at about 90g per 100ml. You can either weigh out your sugar or you can proceed on the basis that you should add about 10% more sugar than water by volume. The best sugar to use is the fine grained stuff which will dissolve more quickly and that is especially important when we get to the following recipes. But first the question of storage.
Sugar is a natural preservative. Given their high sugar content, syrups keep pretty well but not indefinitely. There are too many factors to give you any specific shelf life estimates for these syrups but you can extend their stability in a number of ways. Commercial manufacturers use chemical preservatives. We say “no thanks” to that. Some bartenders add a little vodka to their syrups but I’m not a big fan of this method either. First of all you can’t use it for any alcohol-free drinks and secondly there is a better way of keeping your syrup from going bad. Sterilisation. It’s a lot easier than it sounds. Choose a good solid glass bottle for your syrup; either bought new or re-purposed. Either way, clean it well with soapy water. Fill it with the hottest water that comes out of your tap (about 60-65ºC) while you boil some water. As soon as the water is boiled empty the bottle and refill with the boiled water. After about 10 minutes you will have killed anything in the bottle. Chanting “die, you filthy little microbe bastards” has been shown to maximise the effect. Fill your sterile bottle with your syrup while the glass is still hot (ie. before any new microbes settle inside). Give the cap the same treatment in a small cup for good measure. Congratulations – you’ve just massively extended the shelf life of your syrup. Keeping it in the fridge is also recommended. Signs of spoilage are cloudiness, thin strands of gunk forming near the bottom or anything floating on the top. But if you’re diligent with your sterilisation and use your syrups within a sensible time you’ll probably never get any of that.
Rich simple syrup.
While 1:1 syrup is fine for general use there are advantages to making a stronger 2 parts sugar to 1 part water syrup (aka 2:1, rock candy syrup or rich simple syrup). Without getting too technical (I’m no scientist), water can only absorb about twice it’s volume in sugar and when made this way this 2:1 syrup has a couple of advantages over regular simple syrup. It keeps a lot longer. If made properly and stored in a sterilised bottle you don’t really need to worry about spoilage. It also gives a more pleasing silky mouthfeel to cocktails that it is used in. Of course you have to use a little less of it. An instinctive reaction is to halve the amount but if fact rich syrup is only 33% sweeter than 1:1. Reducing by that amount will get you in the zone (typically 0.75oz > 0.5oz and 0.5oz > just over 0.25oz). Remember that you should be fine tuning your cocktails for sweetness anyway. The one downside of 2:1 is that you have to push the water pretty hard to soak up all that sugar which means using very hot water and a lot of energetic stirring. A halfway house between these of 1.5:1 is also quite popular. Always use 1.5:1 or 2:1 if making anything (liqueurs, amari, limoncello, falernum, bitters etc) where longevity is required.
Unrefined brown sugars, such as demerara, have a bit more flavour and colour than plain old white sugar. Using those as your base – or a mixture of white and brown – will be especially worthwhile in the likes of an Old Fashioned or Tiki drinks. Or everything really. I make my standard 1:1 simple syrup using a mix of about 60/40 white sugar to demerara.
Honey is too thick and sticky to use on its own but when mixed with hot water becomes a useful cocktail ingredient. Unlike white sugar syrup honey brings a wonderful flavour as well as sweetness. Some Tiki recipes call for a honey mix that is equal volumes of honey and hot water (so 1:1 honey mix) and many Petraske recipes call for a rich honey syrup (3:1). Much of the above jibber-jabber also applies to these syrups. I make the 3:1 honey syrup which keeps for much longer and adjust accordingly (just over half the amount) for my Navy Grogs.
Take a couple of sticks of fresh ginger. Peel them with a potato peeler and thinly slice and dice them. Scrape the remains (together with any resultant juices) into 250ml of freshly made, and still hot, 1.5:1 syrup and leave it there for a couple of hours, stirring now and then sieve it and put in a sterilised bottle.
As above but with 2 or 3 sticks of cinnamon. I like to use two sticks of cassia (aka Chinese) cinnamon and one stick of Ceylon (or true) cinnamon.
Passion fruit syrup.
This is an essential ingredient in a number of Tiki drinks and can be a problem to source – especially for us European types. Some commercial syrups can be borderline acceptable (Finest Call’s passion fruit syrup is surprisingly decent) but there is a better way that isn’t too tricky and makes for amazing cocktails. If you have any Mexican or South American specialty shops in your ‘hood there is a good chance they sell frozen passion fruit puree. The sachets shown in the picture came from a local Brazilian shop in a five pack of handy 100g pouches. Simply gently defrosting this and mixing it with 100ml of freshly made 1.5:1 simple syrup results in a mind-blowingly tasty tropical syrup.
By now you’ve probably realised you can make almost anything into a syrup and that the technique is pretty simple. Things like cinnamon and ginger need some time for the sugar to extract the flavour but juices just need mixed in. Feel free to experiment. Grenadine can be made by simply mixing pomegranate juice with syrup but I have a more nuanced recipe for it here. You can find my recipe for super simple home-made orgeat here.