Simple syrup is the most basic and common syrup found in the bartender’s repertoire. Depending on your location, it comes in varying sweetnesses. The one-to-one ratio of equal parts of sugar and water is found in bars across the United States. However, in the European Union, a sweeter version is more commonly used that features a two-to-one ratio of sugar and water. This version, when found in the United States, is known as rich simple syrup. As a liquid, simple syrup is much easier to blend into cocktails than regular sugar and is often used to balance other ingredients like citrus. Simple syrup is also used to sweeten foods like fruits and baked goods by using it as a glaze. While you can purchase simple syrup, it is very economical to make your own.
As with many things bartending, even the most simple process has varying techniques. The first fork in the road comes from simply measuring your ingredients, it is your choice to use either volume or weight. Volume is the most common method in bars where a one-cup measure of sugar is dissolved into a one-cup measure of water. Advocates of weighing accurately point out that this is not the most precise method as one cup of sugar (due to air particles) actually weighs less than the water. For example, a cup of brown sugar weighs around 15% less than a cup of water, thus someone using volume would not have a true 1:1 ratio. When using superfine sugars like caster sugar this difference is negligible, however when using larger more fluffy brown sugars, it takes up more space in your measuring cup and the ratio is thrown off. So if you want to be completely accurate, measure your sugar and water by weight.
The next fork in the road is the process you use to dissolve the sugar into the water. First, the cold process uses room temperature water and the sugar is dissolved by stirring or shaking. Second, the hot process uses heat to help dissolve the sugar and water, making sure not to let the syrup come to a boil because this distorts the ratio of sugar and water. So essentially you place the sugar and water into a small pot and apply a gentle amount of heat while stirring the sugar and water together. The addition of the heat makes the sugar more soluble than just cold water. Advocates of the cold process argue that it prevents sucrose from separating into glucose and fructose, which occurs during cooking. While this is true that this happens during cooking, if you use heat, you will never have it under heat long enough for this breakdown to occur. With either process, sterilize your bottle by rinsing it with boiling water before filling it with the syrup.
Most bartenders prefer the hot process and its main advantage is that the syrup has a longer shelf life. A 1:1 ratio using the hot process typically lasts a month stored in a refrigerator, if you use the cold process, the syrup begins to get moldy in about two weeks. A 2:1 sugar to water ratio made using the hot process, properly stored in the refrigerator, lasts approximately four months in our experience, while the same ratio made using the cold process lasts around six weeks. Some people also use a shot of vodka, 1 ounce per cup of syrup, as a preservative. All that said, the best method is to simply make enough that it is used within a reasonable time.
Taking things further, flavored simple syrups, including cinnamon, ginger, lavender, lemon, and vanilla to name a few are found in many specialty cocktails and other beverages. Flavored simple syrups are also used on baked goods, fruit, and ice creams as toppings. To prepare a flavored simple syrup, just add your desired ingredient to the sugar water mixture, using the hot process to extract more flavor, and then straining the syrup to remove the ingredient and finish the process. The usage of different sugars also alters the color, flavor, and texture of simple syrup. For example, using Demerara sugar provides a fuller, more rich flavor than caster sugar, but it creates a syrup with a brownish color that alters the complexion of clear drinks.
So What Do We Do?
When making most cocktails calling for simple syrup on this blog we use the cold process with caster sugar using a simple volume measure (sometimes if we are feeling ambitious we will weigh) and only making enough to last the evening or a couple of days at the most. The thinking is that the small particle size of the caster sugar makes the ratio accurate enough and because of the immediate consumption, spoilage is irrelevant. If it is a special occasion or a real cocktail nerd is stopping by, we weigh the ingredients and use the hot process. Also, when making flavored simple syrups, we always use the hot process as it provides additional control over the flavor level and because of the preservation it affords. In a multi-ingredient cocktail, we have never been able to pick out the difference between the cold and hot process syrups–if you can, congratulations, you have a finely tuned palate indeed 🙂« Back to Glossary Index