Behind the Bar

A Guide to Simple (and Not-So-Simple) Syrups, Plus 9 Creative Recipes

Five bottles of simple syrup.
Often the underrated cocktail ingredient, syrups can yield subtle flavors and sweetness, contributing to a perfectly balanced cocktail. And they're obviously not limited to just a sugar and water simple syrup — you can create complex flavors with exotic ingredients or purchase syrups like those from Monin that provide some interesting flavors at reasonable prices. Photo via Flickr/Tim Hoggarth.

Bitters may get the glory. Amari may be hot and trendy. Tinctures may bring all the fashionable bartenders to the yard. The workhorse of the cocktail modifier world, though, is still the humble syrup. Toiling on the back end of your cocktail, syrups can offer just enough sweet to balance out your savory while packing a powerful concentrated flavor punch.

Lauren Mote, co-proprietor of Bittered Sling Bitters and bar and beverage consultant for the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, recommends syrups when you need a quick hit of flavor for your cocktail that isn't overpowering. While infusions can sometimes overpower a spirit’s natural flavors, or you don’t want the heavier depth of a bitters, Mote recommends breaking out the syrups in their place.

“Sometimes an infusion is too intense,” she says. “For example, adding a couple of slices of fresh chili to a cocktail for a little heat vs. adding three dried chilies to a bottle of tequila and infusing for three hours.”

The change in flavor and intensity (and in this case, heat) will change drastically.

For Mote’s part, she’s been utilizing syrups for years, including some more unique ones like the Coconut Water and Eucalyptus Syrup in the Cold Springs Cocktail.

Lauren Mote stirring a cocktail Lauren Mote, bartender and co-owner of Bittered Sling, finds syrups to be a great way to add flavor without the intensity of an infusion. Photo by Issha Marie.

Getting started

If you’re dying to get mixing with your own syrups, Mote recommends paying close attention to the quality level of the sugars/sweeteners and the water/liquid you use. High-quality base ingredients mean high quality results. As for flavor pairings, those are limited to your imagination alone. For beginners, though, Mote recommends starting with simple flavors, such as teas.

“Everyone knows how to brew a cup of tea,” she says. “Experiment with the flavors — whether black, white, yellow, rooibos or herbal — and mix that liquid with an equal portion of white sugar, i.e., in a 1:1 ratio.”

Mote recommends playing around with different types of ingredients in varying amounts to create the best syrup for a unique cocktail.

When you’re feeling a lot more comfortable, you can start playing around with different liquids and sweeteners as well. Mote herself has started not just replacing the water, but moving away from white sugar as the syrup’s sweetener. Note: you can improve the shelf life of your homemade syrup by adding a touch of neutral spirit (like vodka) or upping the sugar-to-water ratio to 2:1.

“I am trying not to heat as many ingredients now, so the full character of the raw product comes through,” she says, “whether it's juiced strawberries with black pepper and honey, or mango juice with agave syrup and a splash of acid (slightly shrubby in style).”

Pre-made options

What if you’re one of those bartenders out in rural areas where access to some of the more exotic ingredients aren’t available with a quick trip to the store? Thankfully companies like Monin provide some solid syrups at reasonable prices.

With several dozen to choose from, adventurous bartenders can play it safe with things like mint syrup, or go full adventurer with things like hickory smoke or chipotle pineapple syrup.

No matter whether you make it yourself or go the pre-made route, don’t leave syrups out of your next round of cocktails.

“Syrups are a great — and super fast — way to infuse flavor into a cocktail,” Mote says.

Looking for inspiration? Check out these nine recipes that utilize unexpected and creative house-made syrups as modifiers:

  1. Seasons of the Mist, a cocktail made at New York's Seamstress that gives a fresh update to the New York Sour with a tart green apple puree, lemon, five-spice honey syrup, Benedictine, Laird’s Applejack, Bacardi Maestro and Riesling. Seamstress makes their own five-spice honey syrup with 1 teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder to 8 ounces honey syrup.
  2. Basil Rathbone, Doris Metropolitan's award-winning cocktail from 2015's Tales of the Toddy competition, pairs Basil-Hayden's, Drambuie and sweet vermouth with an earthy, spicy walnut peppercorn syrup.
  3. La Comida, a cocktail with a savory bent from Berlin's famed Le Croco Bleu, created by bartender Phum Sila-Trakoon for this year's Bacardi Legacy Global Finals. Sila-Trakoon uses homemade corn and red bean syrup to inspire memories of meals shared with loved ones.
  4. This Honeydew Punch includes lemongrass syrup, the perfect component in a produce-driven tequila punch that also includes melon, aloe, basil, mint and lime.
  5. The Debutante Daquiri, created by Jason Snopkoski of Williams and Graham, uses a makrut lime syrup to lend tartness to his riff on a daiquiri with Plantation Pineapple and Rhum Clement Canne Bleue.
  6. Thai-Spiced Ginger Beer. Heads-up, this one involves a simple syrup that may or may not be legal in your area: it's "medicated" by adding a cannabis infusion, which is then added to cane sugar-based ginger beer alongside spearmint tea, Art in the Age ROOT, and Jamaican Jerk bitters.
  7. The Cold Springs Cocktail, developed by Lauren Mote, sounds like the kind of cocktail that's good for your immune system: it combines coconut water and eucalyptus in a syrup, then adds gin, lemon juice and Bittered Sling's own Lem-Marrakech bitters.
  8. Hunted, a cocktail developed to support a bartender's album release, is redolent with earthy notes of pine and rosemary joined by an Earl Grey tea syrup.
  9. This Cherry Collins uses a syrup made with British Columbia cherries, star anise, fennel and black peppercorn—another seasonal creation from Lauren Mote.
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