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Back atcha this week to talk about an ingredient that is essential for so many cocktails, yet is usually given a mere cursory glance: simple syrup. I suppose the reason for this is, well, as the name indicates, it's a simple ingredient; so simple to prepare and it so exponentially simplifies the preparation of many drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike.

Thus despite the obvious irony, I have decided to do a two part post on simple syrup in order to showcase the versatility it can add to drinks. Today and next week I'll show you how to make plain simple syrup as well as variations infused with different herbs, spices, and fruits, along with a few cocktail ideas to get you going. Once armed with this simple knowledge I promise you'll never look at iced tea, lemonade, or a sweetened cocktail the same way ever again.

Basic simple syrup is simply sugar dissolved in water. The genius behind the idea is that you no longer have to spend 5 minutes stirring the lemonade pitcher to dissolve the sugar in cold water since it's pre-dissolved and stays that way once made. How sweet and thick the syrup turns out depends on the ratio of sugar to water you use. While you can use any ratio you prefer, the preference for many bartenders and mixologists is 1 to 1.5 parts sugar to 1 part water. I prefer a sugar to water ratio of 1.5:1, as it gives me just enough sweetness without diluting my cocktail too much, and this is the basis for most of the flavored variations I make and the drink recipes which call for them.

Basic Simple Syrup
1.5 cups sugar
1 cup water

Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan over low heat, stirring slowly until sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to cool, then pour into a clean bottle and refrigerate. Will keep for up to a month.

You can use any type of sugar you prefer--regular, organic, raw, whatever--keeping in mind that the unbleached sugars will produce a brown colored syrup. And although I prefer real sugar in my cocktails, you can even use artificial sweeteners like Splenda if you wish, though I've made some pretty nasty tasting Sangria using Splenda and I've decided not to make that same mistake twice.

Flavored syrups are just as easy to prepare as the basic version, and really add a unique component to cocktails. Below are a few recipes for infusing the flavors of herbs and spices.

Sage Simple Syrup (pictured above left)
1.5 cups sugar (I used unbleached organic sugar, hence the brown color)
1 cup water
20 fresh sage leaves (you adjust quantity depending on the intensity of flavor you'd like)

Combine the sugar, water, and sage in a saucepan over low heat, stirring slowly until sugar is completely dissolved. Once dissolved, turn off heat and steep sage leaves for 20 minutes. Once cooled, strain into a jar, discard herbs, and store syrup in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Thyme Simple Syrup (pictured above right)
Follow exact same ratio and procedure as for sage simple syrup above, simply substituting thyme sprigs for sage leaves. Again the intensity of flavor is up to you.

Note: I used fresh herbs here because I had them on hand, so there's absolutely nothing wrong with using dried herbs. In fact, when using dried herbs you can use much less as the flavor is more concentrated. When using dried herbs I generally like to use about 1/4 cup of dried herb for every quart (4 cups) of total syrup.

Li Hing Simple Syrup (flavored with a Hawaiian plum extract powder called "Li Hing," which has a distinctive sweet, sour, and salty flavor--very umami--that can be found in certain Asian markets)
1.5 cups sugar (I used organic Hawaiian sugar here)
1 cup water
10 tsp Li Hing powder (again really up to your taste, though I'd be careful not to overdo it as this is quite a uniquely overpowering ingredient)

Combine everything in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved and syrup is rich red color--the powder will give off color but won't completely dissolve. Turn off heat and set aside to cool, then strain syrup through a cheesecloth (to filter undissolved powder) into a bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Simple enough, right? So let's try a couple of cocktails now. The first cocktail is a Strawberry Sage Smash, which incorporates the sage simple syrup.

Strawberry Sage Smash
3 fresh strawberries, stems removed
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, stems attached
1 oz. vodka
1 oz. strawberry liqueur (learn how to make your own here)
1 oz. sage simple syrup
1 oz. fresh lime juice
fresh ice

Tools: shaker, strainer, muddler, toothpick
Glass: double rocks

Take a strawberry and use the toothpick to poke a hole through the top where the stem used to be, about halfway through. Insert the sage leaves by their stem through the hole. This will be your garnish. Slice the remaining strawberries and place in cocktail shaker. Mash the strawberries with the muddler (you can also muddle a couple sage leaves with the strawberries if you want extra sage flavor, otherwise the syrup should take care of that part). Fill shaker with ice plus remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Strain into double rocks glass filled with ice and place strawberry garnish on rim of glass.

This next cocktail is one of my favorites which I created last year for pre-election Obama fundraisers and post-election victory parties, called the Baroque Obama. It's flavored with Li Hing, but this time I modified the cocktail to use Li Hing simple syrup instead of the previous version that used just the powder. I won't go into the inspiration and thought process behind this cocktail, as all that and more can be found here in a previous post. Here's the Baroque Obama with a minor change you can believe in.

Baroque Obama
2 oz. Starr African rum
1 oz. American gin (ie. Aviation)
1 oz. fresh organic lime juice
1/2 oz. Li Hing simple syrup
1 splash Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
fresh ice

Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: cocktail

Place all ingredients in shaker and shake vigorously; strain into chilled cocktail glass and enjoy!

This concludes part 1 of the simple syrup seminar. Next week I'll come back with a few fruit flavored simple syrups that are just as simple to make, along with a couple of cocktails you can toss them in. Cheers!

Come back every Wednesday for Paystyle's weekly Happy Hour column.

Photography by Vanessa Bahmani
Column: Happy Hour


  • please tell me you didn’t type all this w/ one hand…

    kayce. on

  • That strawberry smash was amazingly delicious and refreshing! I could go for another one. That strawberry almost stole the show, she looked so perfect and held that pose so well!

    Vanessa Bahmani on

  • Yes, I did about half of this w/one hand, like I’m doing now. That’s why it posted @2pm and not noon like I intended. But that’s how committed I am to this fu#*ing cocktail peimpin’ bizness!

    Why u gonna wait til next month? Thought u didn’t care for local/seasonal/slow food ethic? The Smash tastes as good as it looks tho. I couldn’t wait that long.

    Paystyle on

  • PS: REALLY in the mood for a strawberry-sage smash! as soon as strawberry season hits in force next month, that is on my to-do list! _

    kayce. on

  • I can’t wait to try sage simple syrup! I’ve always made lavender to put into iced tea, but sage sounds delicious too! Thanks for the inspiration!

    emma on

  • hahahaha, note to paystyle: def comedy jam called, they are eagerly awaiting your audition b/c your jokes are SOOOO crazy hilarious… :-)~

    look, just b/c i think “slow food” is a bullshit buzzword to sell fools the same product for a higher price DOESN’T mean i don’t like my shit to be seasonal, LOL. but, me and my bestie have a trip to a farmers market planned for next week, and i’ll see what they have then.

    thx for putting in the extra typing effort to check my ass via comments. :D

    kayce. on

  • Love the hue of the li-hing one. So pretty! So what kind of alcohol would you mix this with?

    Carolyn Jung on

  • hot photos, V!

    and you know i love the baroque obama!

    erin on

  • where do you buy those bottles from?

    Anonymous on

  • Carolyn – Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you liked the li-hing. It’s got a pretty unique hue and flavor. I haven’t mixed it with any dark liquors yet, but I know it works fine mixed with the light liquors (gin, vodka, light rum). I bet it’ll add an interesting twist to tiki drinks as well.

    Also If you scroll down in this same post to the Baroque Obama cocktail you’ll see I used it in there, along w/gin, light rum, lime juice, and maraschino.

    Make sure to come back later today for part II!

    Paystyle on

  • Where I got bottles from: referring to pic at top, the small ones were from The Container Store and the large one on the right is from an emptied French sparkling lemonade you can buy in grocery stores, though I can’t remember the brand at the moment.

    Paystyle on

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