In our austere diet culture, nobody likes to admit what oftentimes brings a cocktail from good to great is Sugar. But it really is an amazing granule: it enhances flavor, thickens texture and polishes aroma.
Some people prefer their drink Dry (unsweetened) or Sour (partially sweetened), which is of course a valid preference. But if neither sweet vermouth nor a liqueur are present, in the timeless words of Mary Poppins, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Before refrigerators, tipplers of yore would nearly always mix drinks with hot water: add a cut from the Sugarloaf and the hot water would dissolve it in a snap. This is why many old recipes call for spoons of sugar, not ounces of syrup. But ice makers changed all that.
In cold water and worse yet in alcohol, sugar dissolves very poorly. Once ice became de rigueur, bartenders had to switch to syrups or waste several minutes stirring each drink. If not, the grains recollect as a sweet sludge at the bottom of the glass. This makes the first sips bitter and the last sips oversweet.
Thankfully, syrups are easy to prepare ahead of time and, if jarred and refrigerated, can last a long time. But since syrup can also easily be used for homemade lemonade or sweet tea, chances are a batch won't last long.
- Superfine white granulated sugar — 1 cup
- Filtered water — 1 cup
In a pot, stir the ingredients over a low flame until completely dissolved. Avoid boiling the water, or the syrup will become unpredictably sweet. When bottled and refrigerated, this syrup will stay fresh for weeks, or as much as a half a year if fortified with 2 oz of over-proof vodka.
There are many variations on the simple syrup recipe, most common among them Rich Simple Syrup, which replaces white sugar with turbinado sugar (a fancy term for extra-light brown sugar, like Sugar in the Raw). Table sugar in the 19th century was more similar to these products than today's super-pure white sugars, and the tiny touch of richness from their molasses content is quite nice.
Other sweeteners like agave, corn syrup, or the many flavors of honey and maple are very flavorful and should only be used with the intent of adding that particular flavor, or if necessitated by diet. White sugar is as flavor-neutral as it gets, and it's more advisable to use portion control as opposed to whatever weird 'diet sugar' is popular that week.