Sugar syrup is an invaluable tool in the cocktail bartender’s arsenal. With it you can increase the sweetness of a cocktail one drop at a time. This allows you to make minute adjustments to the sweetness of your cocktails whenever you need to.
The value of this cannot be overstated.
If you don’t know how to adjust your drinks then you’re stuck following recipes to the letter. And when they don’t turn out quite right, you’ll have no way to fix them.
But if you do understand how to adjust your drinks then you have a world of options at your disposal.
You are free to experiment and try out new recipes. You become confident that even if you don’t hit the mark first time you can easily correct your mistake.
Sugar syrup is a very powerful tool to allow you to do just that. It is the essence of sweetness. To understand how to best use it to manipulate the flavour of your cocktails, check out the Axes of Taste posts. Specifically the Balance of Sour post.
You should now understand the relationship between sweet and sour in cocktails. And understand that they interact to balance each other out. You should also be aware that many other flavour types require sweetness to bring out their full potential. Many salty or bitter tastes require sweet in this manner.
So, how do you add sweetness to a drink? Primarily by adding sugars. Sugars are present in a vast array of cocktail ingredients, from spirits and liqueurs to fruits and syrups. But adding one of them will add a specific flavour as well as sweetness.
But what if you just want to add sweetness without also adding a specific flavour? Your first thought would be to add sugar. Whether as a cube or granulated and loose, we’ve been adding sugar to our beverages for centuries.
But a cocktail is not like a cup of tea. A cube of sugar will dissolve into a hot cup of tea with ease. It has a much harder job dissolving into a cup of tea at room temperature. And if your drink is already ice cold you can forget about getting sugar to dissolve in it.
This presents us with a problem. We know exactly how much sugar we need to add to our cocktail to suit our needs. But if we simply add a teaspoon of sugar and shake it, how can we be sure that the sugar we added all made it into solution? How can we be sure that the sweetness we tried to add made it into the drink?
Answer is, we can’t. Certainly not reliably. So we need another solution.
There are two.
The first option is to use specific types of sugar which easily dissolve at room temperature. Standard granulated sugar has a hard time doing this. But Muscovado, for example, slips into solution with ease. A generous spoonful can even dissolve into a bare dash of spirit.
I’m sure that other specialist sugars can too, though I have not experimented on the subject. However, if you choose to use something like Muscovado, you are also adding flavour and not just sweetness to the drink. Depending on the circumstances this could be a great addition. Or it could screw up the delicate balance you’ve already got.
The other solution is to use pre-dissolved sugar. Sugar water. Liquid sugar.
In bartender terminology this is generically referred to as sugar syrup. However, depending on the source you will also find it referred to as simple syrup (especially in America) or Gomme. Technically speaking simple syrup has a very specific ratio of sugar/water. While Gomme, Sirop de Gomme, or Gum syrup also contains Gum Arabica.
For our purposes these terms are all interchangeable, though I’ll use the more generic sugar syrup. Also, I don’t believe in the strict standardization of a sugar/water ratio for sugar syrup. This is largely because I’ll always use freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice. How many ml of juice are in half a lemon? It varies. So how much sugar syrup needs to be used to balance it? It also varies. So standardizing sugar syrup’s sweetness makes little sense.
Sugar syrup allows you to deliver sweetness straight into a drink without otherwise altering its flavour. It is also quick and easy to make, and lasts for quite a while. Weeks certainly. Months if refrigerated.
In bars it’s a winner as you can have a bottle of it on your speed rail for swift and efficient use. At home it’s a winner as you can make this versatile cocktail ingredient from the contents of an average kitchen. This helps to make home cocktail parties both easier and more affordable.
How do you make it? Simple. Get a container that can pour and won’t melt – a pyrex jug perhaps. Add sugar, then boiling water from a kettle. Stir it to dissolve. Just note that it is best made in advance so it has time to cool before you need it.
What proportions of sugar/water should be used? As explained, I’m not too fussed about this. Recipe books for American style simple syrup often say two cups sugar to one cup water makes two cups simple syrup. I prefer to add enough hot water to cover the sugar, stir to dissolve, then add more water up to the rough level the sugar started at.
It’s a rough rule of thumb. It works just fine. With so many variables involved in calculating the sweetness required in any given drink, there is little point in being more precise.
Up until now I’ve been talking generically about sugar. Now to go into some detail.
Cubed or loose, light or dark, what we typically think of as sugar is actually sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning that it consists of two monosaccharides (single sugar molecules) linked together. In the case of sucrose, one molecule of glucose and one of fructose are linked together to make one sucrose.
Sucrose is used as an energy storage molecule by certain plants. It is a non-reducing sugar, making it chemically stable compared to both mono- and polysaccharides. For plants this makes it ideal for energy storage. For man, it makes it easy to store and transport once properly processed.
We humans use sugars as an energy currency – a way of transferring energy to where it is needed within the body. Specifically, we use the monosaccharide glucose, dissolved in blood. Other sugars we may ingest are converted into glucose by the deployment of suitable enzymes.
For this reason glucose is absorbed into our bloodstream very quickly compared to other nutrients. Alcohol mixed in with glucose seems to be absorbed faster than is normal. Glucose is also excellent at masking the alcoholic bite of a cocktail, making them taste alcoholically weaker than they are.
As a general rule of thumb, the higher a sugar is on the glycaemic index, the more effective it is at masking the taste of alcohol. Making use of this information is an advanced mixology topic.
Meanwhile fructose is so named as it is a “fruit sugar”, appearing in many fruits. For this reason it complements fruity flavours exceptionally well. Its presence in sugar syrup accounts for its ability to bring out fruity flavours so exceptionally.
Sweetness for Cocktails
Here’s the kicker.
When you dissolve sucrose in boiling water the heat actually breaks down a good proportion of the sucrose into glucose and fructose. How much? Depends. But probably 30-70%.
So sugar syrup isn’t just generic liquid sweetness. Instead it is a solution of sucrose, glucose and fructose and as such you can expect it to display properties of all these sugars.
It will balance sour elements while masking the taste of alcohol and bringing out fruit flavours. All at once.
Sugar syrup is an invaluable tool for novice and expert alike. It is easy to make and use. And it is suitable for use in bars and at home.
I strongly suggest that you get used to making it and using it. It is best that you master its use first. Then, when you’re comfortable with its use, move on to other sweetening agents.