Few recipes literally spell out how easy they are to make. Sure, there’s no-bake cheesecake and quick bread, but even those necessitate a shopping list of ingredients and a bit of time. Then there’s simple syrup, arguably the easiest thing one can prepare in the kitchen and a critical component for making cocktails..
In fact, you could argue that besides booze, a sugar syrup is what inherently makes a cocktail a cocktail, adding texture, balance, and drinkability. Everything else—fruit juices, ice, those little umbrella garnishes—are nice, but alcohol and sugar will always remain the base for pretty much any cocktail.
“Simple syrup” appeared in print in the first ever cocktail recipe companion, “Professor” Jerry Thomas’s 1862 work, The Bar-Tender’s Guide (a.k.a. How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion). Also calling it “white plain syrup,” Thomas mostly employs it in a variety of 10-gallon punches and offers more than a page of instructions for how to make it (“To clarify loaf-sugar and make syrup” as he notes).
But it needn’t be that hard.
What is simple syrup?
Simply put: It’s a mixture of one part sugar and one part water. Typically, that sugar will be of the white, granulated, “regular” kind, though back in Thomas’s day he used a more flavorful loaf-sugar, not to mention egg whites. According to the recent The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, it was initially “called ‘simple’ by pharmacists to differentiate it from compounded syrups, made with medicinal plants.” Today, however, it’s simple because just about everyone has a massive, leaky sack of Domino or C&H in their cabinets—it’s the same sugar you might bake with.
How to make simple syrup
Most recipes for simple syrup call for a cup each of water and sugar—and many recipes on Epicurious were tested with that base ratio. But actually, professional bartenders believe it’s more accurate to combine by the same amount of weight to achieve a perfect 50° Brix (sweetness) level. (Water weighs a little more than its volume in ounces; sugar a little less.) But, quite frankly, for the home bartender, if you combine by volume, your syrup will be a tad less sweet, but close enough.
Recipes have also long dictated using hot and even boiling water to allow for the sugar to easily dissolve the solid into a solution, but many bartenders in recent years have realized this method is prone to evaporation, thus throwing off the water-to-sugar ratio, and giving you a sweeter syrup, ounce-for-ounce, than you intended. Instead, many bartenders now combine equal parts room-temperature water and sugar, then shake vigorously. A blender will likewise do the trick. The color of the resulting syrup should be slightly milky, with a clean flavor, ideal for just about any cocktail, though probably best for ones that use lighter spirits you don’t wish to in any way overshadow.
“Simple syrup imparts almost no actual taste, so I think of this as the vodka of sweeteners,” says Jessica King of Brother Wolf, an aperitivo bar in Knoxville. “It gets the job done.”