There comes a time in the course of everyone’s life when we take umbrage with our Southern cousins. Okay, not everyone. Maybe just me. But if there’s one Dixie contribution that needs to be stricken from the world, it’s the abomination that is Sweet Tea. I love my iced tea, but iced tea is a drink drunk black — as Messieurs Twining and Bigelow intended. And, while I would happily take up arms to halt the continued, treacherous expansion of Sweet Tea, I have to stop and tip my hat to those down yonder who initially came to the realization that simple syrup, not granular sugar, is the way to go when sweetening cold drinks (with a few exceptions, like the Cocktail).
If you’re going to mix drinks at home, simple syrup is going to be one of the key utility players on your team. Used appropriately, simple syrup delivers sweetness that compliments, and not overpowers, the other ingredients. It’s like the muffler (mute) on a trumpet — there to do its job without obfuscating the rich, warm sound.
The first thing to know about simple syrup is that it indeed lives up to its name. Dissolve sugar in water — that’s it. And although recipes vary, I stick with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water as follows:
Basic Simple Syrup
1 cup Water
2 cups Sugar
Slightly heat water in a sauce pan over lowest possible flame. Stir in sugar in multiple batches and stir to dissolve before adding the next batch. Finish when all sugar is dissolved.
While there’s no question that it’s a foolproof recipe, there is a question as to which sugar to use.
If all you have is regular, old white C&H Sugar, you’re fine. Basic white sugar makes a great syrup — it’s light, it’s bright, and if you use the above technique, you’ll be able to follow any of the recipes given here or found elsewhere without over sweetening your final concoction.
Back in the days of cocktail yore, sugar didn’t quite look like the snow white, super refined product we see today. It looked more what we call brown sugar. Brown sugar, of course, is typically unrefined — meaning it retains its molasses and hasn’t had a host of additives forced upon it. Of course, not all brown sugar has been created equal; what you want here is Demerara or Sugar in the Raw. The crystals tend to be a little too large to dissolve well, so a quick trip through the food processor is in order.
Because it still has its molasses, brown syrup will bring this extra flavor to your drinks, which is wonderful for rum and not bad with any other brown spirit. With clear spirits — gin and vodka — brown syrup can discolor your drink, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving it a go. It also tends to be less sweet than white syrup, so you may need to fiddle with the amount.
Gomme or Gum syrup has an extra ingredient — gum acacia. This lends a silky smooth quality to the syrup that is a) wonderful; and, b) not so wonderful that your bar can’t live without it. Gum Acacia (or Gum Arabia, as it’s also called) runs about $23 a pound, and it doesn’t go as far as you’d like it to. However, it is what they used in the old days, and if you feel like whipping up a batch, search the interwebs for a recipe (or email me) and head over to Frontier Coop to pick up your supply.
If you want to add a little extra depth to your drinks, try adding some flavor. Around home, we typically brew up Rosemary, Mint, and Lemon, but this is a place to let your creativity have a little fun.
Making flavored syrups may take a little longer, but it really isn’t any more difficult:
Once your basic recipe is done, throw in a handful of herbs or citrus rind (peel with a vegetable peeler to avoid the white pith). Bring the whole thing to a boil, and let it continue to boil for about five minutes. Cover it and take it off the heat, leaving it until it cools. Remove or strain out the solid bits, and you’re done.
When you’re ready to venture off the beaten path, flavored syrups are a great way make a drink your own. I use Rosemary Syrup along with lemon and lime juice. The Mint Syrup brings an extra level to my Mint Juleps without resorting to horrible mixes. The sky (and good taste) is really the limit, so go ahead, knock yourself out.
Esoterica: Granular sugar isn’t the only way to sweeten a drink. Honey, agave nectar, palm sugar, cane juice, molasses, liqueurs — use what you like and, most importantly, what works for the drink. Sweet ‘n Low, however, will get you hurt.