Cocktail Chemistry: What Makes Simple Syrup Simple?

Everything. From its ingredients to its straightforward recipe, simple syrup might be the least complicated item on a bar. But its role in your favorite drinks is incredibly important. For classic cocktails like the Daiquiri or the Ramos Gin Fizz, sugar balances the sourness and alcoholic bite of the other ingredients.

Although the original recipes of many drinks call for superfine sugar, substituting simple syrup reduces the amount of undissolved sugar remaining in the finished drink. There’s another key benefit as well: Since the solubility of any substance decreases with temperature, using syrup also simplifies mixing drinks with chilled ingredients.

It’s also simple to make. By definition, it’s a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water. At room temperature, this ratio falls short of the saturation point of sucrose (sugar) in water, which is around 2000 g/L. This limit opens up two possible ways of making simple syrup. If you’ve got free time, combine equal parts sugar and water in a sterilized glass container at room temperature. Shake occasionally, and in about 15-20 minutes you’ll have simple syrup. The alternative is to heat the mixture and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Each method has its pros and cons: The room temperature technique results in more viscous syrup since the sucrose hasn’t been broken down by heat. Though the thickness adds a silkier texture to cocktails, it may also reduce the syrup’s shelf life. On the other hand, making simple syrup on the stove can kill some of the bacteria and microbes that occur naturally in the mixture. In theory, this process should extend its longevity.

Preventing spoilage otherwise requires a little bit of creativity. If you’re OK with boiling your syrup, add a pinch of cream of tartar or a dash of lemon juice and let simmer for longer than normal. Both the acid and heat speed up the reaction between sucrose and water in a process known as hydrolysis. This process breaks the sucrose down into two simple sugar molecules: fructose and glucose.The resulting syrup is slightly sweeter than simple syrup, so you may have to readjust your favorite recipes accordingly.

Another way to stabilize sugar syrup is to add a little bit of vodka or other neutral spirit. Depending on the size of your batch, adding between a teaspoon and an ounce should inhibit growth of anything undesirable. Yet another is to make rich simple syrup by using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. As a saturated solution, this ratio should yield a sweeter syrup that is less likely to spoil due to its decreased water content.

Hit the Lab

After your syrup’s finished, it’s time for some experimentation. Back in the 1880s, Henry Ramos created this drink in his New Orleans bar. It quickly became so popular that Ramos always had at least ten bartenders behind the bar every night to fill the demand.

Ramos Gin Fizz

1 dash orange water (Don’t skip or substitute.)
1 egg white
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz simple syrup
1 oz heavy cream
2 oz gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for one to two minutes. Strain into a chilled Collins glass and top with a splash of club soda.

Image credit: Mary Katherine Morris Photography

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October 25, 2013 - 1:06pm
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