Simple Syrup and the Whiskey Sour

Simple syrup. It’s a staple of the bar that’s been replaced by corn syrup and thousands of derivative products that make every home cocktail taste like what they serve at Chi-chi’s. Yes, it’s fun to have a margarita party, but when you make your margaritas with a blender, vodka, ice, and a bright green bottle of sweet anti-freeze, well, you’re doing it wrong. But, that’s how I started making cocktails for my friend. (I used tequila, though.)

There’s a lot to be said for the supermarket, but I can bet that most of us have never had a real piña colada, or mudslide, or Tom Collins. The colada and mudslide shouldn’t be made with syrups in any case, but the Tom Collins, named after that guy who said the most awful things about you, takes simple syrup as one of the ingredients. But when it’s replaced by a Collins mix purchased at the local grocery store, the drink ends up too sweet, and the light lemon flavor is replaced by harsh citric acid.

Simple syrup is what the name suggests–simple in ingredients and preparation. Add one part water to one part sugar in a saucepan, mix and bring to a boil, then kill the heat. I let it simmer for three minutes after boiling, but that’s just my technique to get it a bit thicker. Either way, it’s simple syrup at that point.

Why do this? Why not just put sugar in the drink? Sugar doesn’t dissolve well in cold drinks, as any iced-tea drinker can attest to. Dissolving the sugar into the simple syrup makes it easier to sweeten drinks, especially when ice is involved. That’s why the syrup is brought up to a boil. The sugar water gets a bit hotter than normal boiling point, and at this temperature the sugar crystals break apart into glucose and sucrose. These stay sweet and won’t re-crystalize. The syrup can be refrigerated and still remain viscous; although, like both sugar and water, it won’t go bad left on the shelf. I make about two cups at a time–two cups of water and two cups of sugar make slightly more than two cups of syrup.

The simple syrup can be used straight for flavoring the aforementioned Tom Collins and iced-tea. But once I started making the syrup, I began to experiment with using it as the foundation for other syrups. My favorite has been my sour mix.

Whiskey Sour

  • 3 oz. whiskey
  • 2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • enough ice to fill 1/3 of the large Boston shaker cup
  • old-fashioned glass with ice if serving on the rocks
  • slice of lemon or orange and a maraschino cherry
Combine whiskey, lemon juice, and syrup in the shaker cup with ice. Shake the heck out of that mother, and strain into the old fashioned glass. Serve with the citrus slice and cherry. A note on the whiskey: Don’t use Scotch. Canadian blended whisky is fine, and traditionally the drink is made with a Bourbon. I’ve never tried it with rye, but I bet that’s pretty good, too. Whiskey deserves its own entry, so I’ll be going into all that some other time.

I got to thinking, after making a whiskey sour as above, about the sour mixes that many of use to make our drinks. It occurred to me that I could make a citrus syrup that could be used for sours and lemon-lime sodas by adding seltzer. I took the zest from one lemon and one lime. I squeezed and strained the juice from both fruits and added the juice and zest to one cup of water in a saucepan. After it got to a boil, I added 4oz. of vodka and reduced the mixture to a simmer–the vodka extracts alcohol-soluble flavors that water alone can’t get to. The liquid reduces quickly, and when there is about a quarter-of-a-cup left, it’s a powerful extract. I added this to my simple syrup and created my own sour mix.

I made a whiskey sour with an ounce or two of the sour syrup and a spritz of seltzer to replace the lemon juice and simple syrup in the original. The sour syrup is just the first of my mixes. I’ve made a ginger syrup and an orange-mint syrup that was fairly outrageous. Simple syrup is just the first step.