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16 Aug 2019

On Cocktails: Syrups—Both Simple and More Complex—Are Easy to Make and Wonderful to Enjoy

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A tequila gimlet with candied chilis. A tequila gimlet with candied chilis. Kevin Carlow

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Yes, there are things best left to professionals, like distilling grappa, dentistry and putting in a new electrical subpanel. However, when I think about all the years I was forced to use mixers that came in shiny bags or bottles—full of food additives and powdered egg whites and dyes—I cringe.

Also, I get it: For many people who give up bartending to become management, a goodly chunk of their pay is incentive bonuses. They have to make the ownership money. Luckily, in 2019, we have a fair share of beverage directors who stake their reputations on quality and owners who have come around to the idea of having such a bar manager. We certainly have several here in the Coachella Valley—but this isn’t about them, not this month.

Back to doing it yourself: Why is anyone buying simple syrup? I walk through the aisles of supermarkets and liquor stores and see bottles of simple syrup for almost $10 a bottle. It’s called “simple” for a reason, people! It costs 50 cents to make. Grab your food scale; weigh a pound (or half-kilogram) of sugar; put it in a tightly sealed container with an equal weight of ice-cold water. Now shake it like it insulted your momma. It will be cloudy, but the cloudiness will dissipate in time. Don’t have a food scale? No problem; just use equal parts by volume … only a total nerd would object. I like the cold-shake method over the heat method, because there is no evaporation: You get exactly what you put in. It does stay cloudy for some time, so don’t make it right when you’re going to need it.

Most bartenders make simple using the hot method: Use the same recipe; put it over a flame and stir, or add super-hot water to the sugar—carefully—and stir until dissolved.

OK … now that you have these methods down pat, why not take your syrup game to the next level?

The easiest way to wow your friends may be an Earl Grey-tea syrup. This has become such a standard in the industry that when I was in a recent drink competition, I used one for my entry … as did three other bartenders. (It wasn’t a great way to stand out, but we are bar geeks. Maybe next time I will use oolong.) Unless you’re in a competition, don’t worry; most people have never tasted the lovely flavor of tea and bergamot in a cocktail. Simply make a strong tea; pour it into the same amount of sugar, and stir. When it’s fully cooled, use it in an old fashioned with gin and a twist of lemon. This is a great alternative old fashioned for the hot weather we still have in the Coachella Valley, as it’s more refreshing than its whiskey cousin:

2 ounces of Plymouth gin (or other light bodied gin)

½ ounce of Earl Grey syrup

2 dashes of orange bitters

Stir over some ice cubes; serve with a twist of lemon.

Make a bee’s knees or gold rush with it, and your friends will be talking about for months. In fact, you can make it the way I did for the contest—as honey syrup—and tell me if I was robbed: Just use extra, extra strong tea, and stir into double the amount of honey. I added some lemon zest and lemongrass as well; it didn’t come through in the finished product enough to make it “mandatory,” but if you have it lying around, feel free. I used egg white, which isn’t the standard recipe but mighty delicious. Feel free to omit it if you don’t like good things … but otherwise:

Drop an egg white into a shaker

2 ounces of dry (or barrel-aged for extra credit) gin for the bee’s knees, or 2 ounces of bourbon for the gold rush

3/4 to 1 ounce of honey syrup

1 ounce of fresh lemon juice

Shake without ice for five to 10 seconds. Add ice, and shake another 10 seconds or until the shaker is nicely frosted. Strain through a fine strainer into a Nick and Nora or coupe glass, and grate a shortbread (or other tea-time-appropriate cookie) over the top with a microplane into a thick line. It’s a little extra, but it will make your guests say, “Oh, I have never seen that before”—and that’s the point, right?

Not a big fan of tea? No problem: If you have some rosemary, or lavender, or thyme, or any other shrubby herb, you can use that to make a great syrup, too! Just take your sugar and water to a simmer; add herbs; turn off the heat; and let it cool. Be sure to remove the herbs when you get the flavor level that you’re looking for, by the way; it can get too strong quickly. Oh, and if it does get too strong, don’t throw it out; just add some plain simple syrup to tame it. Once it’s cooled, you can make a refreshing non-alcoholic lemonade out of it:

2 ounces of herbed simple

2 ounces of fresh lemon juice

3 ounces of water

Shake with ice and dump into a tall glass. Of course, feel free to add vodka or gin if you could use a tipple.

One last twist on syrups: You can make what’s known as an oleo saccharum out of pretty much any citrus peel. Just peel the zest off of the fruit; cover it with sugar; and shake in a mason jar. Then give it the occasional shake until it’s a syrup. I will go into this more when I do an article on punches, but for now, here’s a little tip: You can use hot chilis with the same technique! I use a mix of serrano and Fresno chilis, and slice into fine rings. Ditch most of the seeds, but keep the membranes, and cover with lots of sugar. Shake in the jar … and I like to leave the sealed jar in the hot desert sun. This speeds the process along and adds some more ripeness and fruitiness to the finished syrup—but don’t leave it out there too long. Use a couple of teaspoons of this syrup, after straining, with an ounce of lime juice and two of tequila, and shake over ice next time you’re craving a spicy margarita. No, it’s not a margarita; it’s more of a gimlet. No need to tell anyone, though. Feel free to add some mezcal if you have trendy friends coming.

Oh, and you get candied chili peppers, too! Not only are they delicious; they make a great garnish. Drop a couple in the glass, or if you’re barbecuing chicken or pork, make an hors d'oeuvre with a chunk of meat and a candied chili ring on a toothpick. Talk about a pairing!

However you ride out the rest of the summer, now you can make it a little sweeter.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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