The One Non-Negotiable Ingredient You Need to Make Great Cocktails at Home
Taming harshness and creating balance is easy—with one simple addition.
Whether you’re a professional or home mixer with just a few go-to drinks, there are certain essential ingredients in the cocktail maker’s toolbox. Spirits provide the baseline. Ice keeps drinks frosty and palatable. Citrus gives a lift. And then there is one cornerstone that many at home skip: simple syrup.
Simple syrup, a solution of sugar and water, is the best way to layer sweetness into drinks. This doesn’t mean making drinks overly sweet—it means adding just enough syrup to put your other ingredients into smoother conversation, to give them ideal balance. Spirits provide baseline, yes, but they can be harsh. Cocktails often also have bitter, herbal, floral, fruity, citrusy, smoky, and many other bold flavors that, with some sweetness, can be softened.
The role of sweetness in cocktails raises a question. If sweetness has such potential, why not create it by adding sugar?
The answer is easy: simple syrup is far better at blending into a cocktail. After half a minute of shaking or even quick stirring, your simple syrup will be integrated, its sweetness dispersed through your drink. Granules of sugar, on the other hand, are much harder to dissolve into a cocktail. Using them, you’re likely to get a graininess here and there, especially near the bottom. With plain sugar, sweetness will be less evenly spread through the drink.
Simple syrup is a 1:1 solution of white sugar and water. Over low heat, you add sugar to water, stirring until no visible trace of sugar remains and the syrup is syrupy. The process takes just a few minutes. Simple syrup is an easy means of dissolving sugar into liquid, and that’s why it beats adding white sugar. (Find a collection of our top recipes below.)
Plain sugar, though, has its place. In some drinks, like a mojito, grains of sugar can give a cocktail rusticity, and a link to how the drink was made before modern mixology. In a pinch, too, adding sugar crystals beats adding no sugar. But having a syrup batch ready to go makes things easier and more fluid—plus you can use your batch of simple syrup in iced coffee, cold brew, or iced tea.
Moreover, simple syrup is just one cocktail syrup. It’s the most universal, the most neutral. At the stage of making syrup at home, you have a chance to introduce other flavors.
When simmering simple syrup, you can think beyond white sugar. Brown sugar adds richness. Mexican brown sugar, piloncillo, creates notes of molasses perfect for some tiki drinks. You can also add spices like cinnamon and herbs like rosemary to syrups. You can even make syrup by skipping sugar and mixing the water with honey instead.
And instead of using water, you can use other liquids. (You’re probably beginning to sense the possibilities!)
Try mixing sugar into leftover white wine. This creates a syrup of stunning nuance. Try it instead with a red wine, even a rosé. Or try making a white-sugar simple syrup with a few pieces of fruit added to the pot or pan, then straining the solids out before bottling. You can even use food that would otherwise go to waste in cocktail syrups. You know the fibrous middle of a pineapple? Sliced thin, it can imbue syrup with gentle tropical flavor. Already-squeezed citrus can flavor syrup the same way.
When making cocktails, you can cut some corners. But cocktail syrup isn’t one of them. A few batches of simple and then creative syrup, and even the most old-school minimalist will always want a homemade batch of syrup at the ready. If unlocking the best cocktails is your goal, here is one important key.