A RATIONALE OF SUGAR SYRUP IN COCKTAILS

A RATIONALE OF SUGAR SYRUP IN COCKTAILS

Todd Appel

What should the sugar to water ratios in syrup for cocktails be?This has been a very important subject and one that for some reason still has some controversy over in our new world of drink mixing. One would think sugar syrup wouldn’t be a hot button issue, but whenever I have brought it up, I get some pretty hot responses and like I am a heretic that I should even question such a law of “mixology”. But there are some very good historical as well as logical reasons for my disdain of 1-1 simple syrup in cocktails.

For years I have wondered why my taste buds seemed to be at odds with many of the classic and new cocktails being offered around the country in during the renaissance of our modern cocktail world.
And I thought about something important that I realized many years ago.
Syrup in cocktails should be sugar heavy. Not to make the drinks sugar heavy, but to balance the sour ratios to their proper place and lessen added water.

I am not here to say drinks should be made in any way other than what the drinker wants. That takes precedent over anything. So if they want a sweet or sour or “balanced” drink, or a watered down drink, that is their prerogative. and you can do all of those things with a rich syrup, but once you have made your syrup 1-1, you can’t go back and you can’t get the balance that I believe is needed and was intended from the beginning and in most classic cocktail recipes calling for simple syrup.The original reason for making syrup for cocktails and other drinks was to make the sugar soluble. Pure and simple, no pun intended. One doesn’t need an equal amount of water to dissolve sugar, and I can only speculate as to how this practice came to be. But I believe it was out of a bit of laziness and expediency, both very human traits, but traits that unfortunately lead to things like “White Whiskey” and “Hamburger Helper”.

Many of the oldest drink recipes call for lump sugar to be dissolved by crushing or mixing. This became impractical as the cocktail evolved and pre-melting the sugar into a syrup became a standard.
That being said, the logical conclusion would be to nudge the solid sugar into liquid sugar. But we can’t realistically have that so we must add water to melt the sugar. Logic would have us add only as much water as needed to melt the sugar to be as close to liquid sugar as possible. But that logic has, for some reason, eluded far too many in our modern cocktail world.

Some basic premises, first.
1 When making cocktails, the general rule is that any outside water that gets into the drink, that isn’t added on purpose, will come from the ice melt and/or any juice.  This is very important to getting the correct dilution for spirits in cocktails.
2 The more water you have in your syrup ratio, the less sugar you have in your measurements and the more water you have in your cocktail, and the reverse.

3) The more water you have in your ratio, the less sugar you have in your syrup to balance the acid (lime or lemon juice)  1 oz of 1-1 simple is only .5 oz of sugar.

These two points are incredibly important to making a balanced cocktail, particularly when trying to recreate classic recipes that call for sugar, sugar syrup or gomme syrup.
But points that I realized have been lost on nearly the entire renaissance of cocktail culture in the US.
While there is a definite demand for quality ice and attention to ice melt today, there hasn’t been that same attention to the water and sugar in 1-1 sugar syrup.

It is also the reason, I believe, that far too many cocktails in our new cocktail world are terribly unbalanced, even though they seem to be following classic recipes to a tee. And those erroneous ratios are also translated to many modern originals today with the same poor results.
In Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks, (William Terrington, 2nd edition,1870, pg. 60)  for making syrup…”..(sugar) …should be close in texture and hard to break. It requires for its solution one-third of its weight in cold, and less of boiling water.” This is a 3-1 sugar to water ratio.

When reading the classic Embury tome, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (David Embury,1948), some time ago, I was very disappointed to see his ratios of citrus juice to syrup up to 2-1 in his cocktail recipes, until I read his ratios of sugar to water in his syrup. Now it made much more sense and was important historical and logical evidence to support the use of heavy sugar syrup in cocktails..
He used almost pure liquid sugar and not the 1-1 sugar water that so many of today’s mixologists blindly use and not adjusted to the ratios that Embury might suggest. This leads to a complete disaster in the final product..

The problem here is twofold. 1-1 syrup offers more water and less sugar. This leads to more dilution and/or overly acidic drinks. Another problem is that if you are using measuring cups and not using a scale, you will have even less than a 1-1 ratio since a cup of dry granulated sugar weighs less than a cup of water.

Embury goes on about the sugar to water ratio to my absolute delight..”The object to determining the ratio of sugar and water is to make the syrup as heavy as possible without getting later crystallization. I have found that a mixture of 3 cups of sugar to each cup of water yields very satisfactory syrup.”
EUREKA!!!

Embury also goes on to state he uses only syrups in even his Old-Fashioned cocktails and other cocktails that call for granulated or lump sugar and that there is absolutely no need nor desire to use gum arabic in syrups (pg 83-84, Art of Mixing Mixing Drinks, Embury)
The 1-1 ratio for simple syrup in cocktails is the elephant in the room of bartenders and mixology today.
I can’t think of one cocktail that would be better served with a ratio of more water, less sugar and/or more acid than what is called for in it’s recipe, and that is exactly what is happening in even some of the best cocktail bars in around the country.

The idea of delineating “rich” simple syrup vs “regular” simple syrup use in cocktails today is rendered inane with this realization.

All cocktails that use sugar really should use at a minimum a 2-1 ratio and the days of blindly using 1-1 sugar water in any cocktail needs to be a thing of the recent past.

7 thoughts on “A RATIONALE OF SUGAR SYRUP IN COCKTAILS

  1. I actually like the ratio of 2 parts citrus to 1 part (1:1) simple. For the average person who enjoys sweeter drinks, 1 part citrus to 1 part (1:1) simple is safe. If you're Dale Degroff, that will become 1 part citrus to 1.25 syrup. Sometimes extra syrup is needed to cover a harsher liquor like cachaca.

    Not sure using Embury as a definitive source for anything other than amateur opinion from decades ago is a solid idea. But keep in mind that he loved his drinks strong and extra water would dilute (although he had the opposite argument with his 8:2:1 ratios). And to counter all of this, his spirits were 86-100 proof or higher so his drinks will be stronger than what we can make with our common 80 proof ones.

  2. Brilliant.
    While i have –staunchly– been an advocate of 'rich' simple for years i had not connected the 'dots' . . .
    3 to 1 from now on.
    My response to those who wish for more water in their drinks has always been “i will mix it longer” and thus have a better, more incorporated drink, with exquisite chill– rather than a rush-chilled drink that i was fighting the 'clock' to avoid over diluting.
    Great post Todd, i am now a 'follower' and you have been added to my blog roll and thanks to the Sporting Life for sending your link to me!

  3. The reason modern convention became 1:1 is because 2:1 syrup is a pain in the ass to work with behind the bar. It takes forever to pour out of jiggers and it makes your hands all sticky. There's no way I'd be able to pump out drinks as quickly as I can if I used 2:1. There are other benefits too; for example, many cordials are roughly as sweet as 1:1 syrup, which makes substitution in recipes easy.

    I don't buy the argument that 1:1 syrup causes noticable dilution because the math doesn't support it. Let's say you need to add a tablespoon of sugar to a drink. With 1:1 syrup, you'd have to add one tablespoon of sugar dissolved in one tablespoon of water. With 2:1 syrup, you would add one tablespoon of sugar dissolved in half a tablespoon of water. So the 1:1 syrup requires adding an extra 1/2 tablespoon, i.e. 1/4th of an ounce of water. Controlling dilution to within 1/4 oz is impossible in a commercial bar setting, so it's pointless to worry about it in your syrup.

    If you want to reduce water content in your drinks, use cask-strength spirits, dry your ice, and chill all your tools before mixing. You could even chill your spirits if you had the space. But 2:1 syrup just isn't worth the trouble.

  4. Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    Frederic: It is all a matter of taste for sweetness to be sure. My point is not the ratio of syrup to citrus…but the ratio of sugar to water in making your syrup.

    2 parts citrus to 1 part syrup begs the question…what is the syrup?

    if it is 1-1 simple syrup…then you have actually 4-1 citrus to sugar…and water making up the difference that isnt called for in your cocktail.

    While I only used two important sources for evidence that 3-1 or a very rich syrup was pretty much the standard in the ancient cocktail world, I think we can also use the logic of what simple syrup was trying to do in a cocktail in the first place…to simply pre-dissolve the sugar that was called for in making the cocktail.
    We want it pre-dissolved because sugar doesnt dissolve well on the fly, especially in iced or chilled cocktails

    The more water you use after the sugar is dissolved is redundant and is taking place of the sugar that is supposed to be in your drink.

    If you need, say, 1 tblsp (15 ml) of sugar in your cocktail, your additional water equivalent in 3-1 syrup is 5 ml of water. With 1-1 syrup your water equivalent is a whopping 15 ml of water just for the same amount of sugar needed!!

    My point here is 1)not to make an issue of personal taste on sweetness or tartness in ones drink and 2) that I am trying to just make the pre-dissolved sugar as waterless as possible, and that extra water damages cocktails and also damages recipe ratios based on flawed 1-1 simple syrup used in place of the rich simple that was the standard in classically made cocktails.

    Once the syrup is at the proper ratio, we can make our drink as sweet or tart as we like.

  5. Nathan

    I absolutely do not agree with your logic.

    First, as I pointed out in my reply to Frederic, to get the same sugar equivalent of 15 ml of sugar in 1-1 syrup, you have to triple the water that you add to your cocktail vs 3-1.

    that means if i need .75 ounce of sugar equivalent in my drink and I use 1-1 syrup, I have to add a full 1.5 oz of syrup to my drink. Where in 3-1 I will use only 1 oz. This does make a big difference in dilution..and Im not talking about dilution of alcohol…but in the flavor of the spirits you use.

    And the extra water creates not only dilution issues, but balance and texture issues.

    I also dont find rich simple syrup difficult to make or to use, and do so regularly in a very busy environment but we all have different thresholds for those things. I think any perceived difficulties are more than made up for with the benefits of rich syrup.

    thanks for the comments Nathan

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