The hotter the water is, the faster the sugar will dissolve. For a smaller batch like the one shown above, boiling water from a kettle will dissolve the sugar in about 10-15 seconds. But it doesn't have to be that hot, warm water from the tap is still pretty quick, it'll only take 45 seconds to a minute. Naturally, for larger batches these times will be increased.
In fact, the water doesn't need to warm at all. Sugar will also dissolve into room temperature, or even cold, water; it’ll just take longer.
Just about any time a cocktail contains fresh citrus juice - and a lot of them do - it will also have a sweetener to balance it out. The most common sweetener is simple syrup.
Simple syrup is something you need to make yourself - I strongly discourage buying any of the commercial options available - but true to its name, it is ridiculously easy. Just combine equal parts white sugar and hot water, and stir until dissolved. Hot water straight from the tap works just fine.
This little ritual is about as essential to cocktails as stocking your liquor cabinet and filling your ice cube trays. Even if you're an occasional cocktail maker it's a good idea to have some simple syrup on hand. It keeps for at least a month in the refrigerator, so you can make it large batches. Plus, you can also use it for sweetening drinks like iced coffee, tea, or lemonade.
The Basic Recipe
Rich Simple Syrup
Rich simple syrup contains twice as much sugar, so that's two parts sugar to one part water. It is about 1 1/2 times as sweet as traditional equal parts 1:1 simple syrup, and naturally much thicker.
Because of the added sugar, you have to heat it over the stove to get the sugar to fully dissolve.
2 cups white sugar
1 cup hot water
Combine in a pot or saucepan over low heat. Stir until dissolved.
Rich syrups are great for adding texture and body to a cocktail, particularly in stirred, spirit-forward drinks. For example, I use a rich syrup made with demerara sugar in my Old Fashioned.
But they can be applied to any drink. Just remember that when using a rich simple syrup, you’ll use less of it and the cocktail will be more concentrated. Generally, about a ½ ounce of rich simple syrup is equal to ¾ ounces traditional simple syrup.
Using Syrup vs Raw Granulated Sugar
Some older cocktails recipes you'll see will call for a couple teaspoons or so of raw sugar as the sweetener. But today the majority of bartenders use simple syrup as a basic sweetener because it is be easier to measure and will integrate into the cocktail much more consistently. With raw sugar some of it always ends up collecting the bottom of the glass, reminiscent of raw sugar in iced coffee (notice we’re seeing more and more simple syrup at coffee shops nowadays). So, it's generally ok substitute in simple syrup for raw sugar. Here's the conversion:
1 tablespoon white sugar equals about ¾ oz simple syrup
That being said, using raw sugar can be interesting. Because there's no water, it gives drinks a slightly more concentrated edge, which some find preferable in more bracing cocktails. I think raw sugar works great in a daiquiris for example.
Because it needs to be dissolved on the spot I wouldn't recommend using raw sugar in a bar, it takes far too long, and in a rush some will inevitably end up at the bottom of the glass. But at home, it's worth trying.
If you do use raw sugar dissolve it into just the citrus juice first. Sugar doesn't break down into alcohol so well. Swirling them together in a shaker for about 30 seconds - with room temperature juice - should do the trick.
Store Bought Simple Syrup
I don't recommend these, at all. For one, retail simple syrups have a much higher sugar content than the traditional recipe to keep them shelf stable. So they will be too sweet for most cocktails recipes - certainly all the ones on this site - and you'll have to adjust the amounts.
Also, some store bought simple syrups contain preservatives and/or are made with high fructose corn syrup. In addition to not being natural, these can give them a synthetic flavor, which you will taste in your cocktails.
But the biggest reason to not buy simple syrup is it’s not worth it! As I've said above, making simple syrup is as easy as putting sugar and water in a glass. Making simple syrup yourself is cheaper and results in a much better product. Don’t waste your money.
Prolonging Shelf Life
Simple syrup will generally keep for at least month in the refrigerator. After which little specs of mold may begin to appear. So it doesn't oxidize or spoil exactly, it just becomes unattractive.
If you want to keep mold from growing in your simple syrup for longer than a month, you can make it on the stove and bring it a boil. That will kill off any fungus or bacteria that may be hiding in there. Even just using boiling water to dissolve the sugar makes a big difference. Be careful to not let it boil for too long or the evaporating water will eventually throw off the syrup's sweetness ratio.
Store it in the cleanest bottle you have, which you should always do. If you bottle syrup when it's still hot, the heat will sterilize the inside of the bottle and further prevent mold from growing for a very long time. I used this method and the bottle has been in my fridge more than 8 months and there still isn’t a trace of anything.
Note: rich simple syrup will keep for much longer because of the high sugar content.
Common white table sugar, aka superfine sugar, is best for traditional simple syrup because it dissolves quickly and is neutral tasting. Simple syrup should only supply clean sweetness, not flavor. I’d avoid using powdered sugar. It contains 3% cornstarch will make the syrup slightly cloudy. The ratio will also be completely different because powdered sugar is so fine.
Of course, if you want to add some flavor notes simple syrup can be made with any kind of sugar, like the darker demerara or turbinado sugars (an expanded sugar page is coming soon!).
You Can Also Use the Microwave!
It may not be in keeping the rustic image of with craft cocktails image, but the microwave sure is easy and fast. Just combine the sugar and water, nuke it for thirty seconds to a minute, and stir.
Why Not on the Stove?
Many recipes call for simple syrup to be made on the stove, but it really doesn't have to be. As I mentioned above, water does not need to be boiling hot to dissolve sugar, far from it.
The only practical reason to use the stove would be to boil the syrup to extends its shelf life, more details on that below. But from where I'm standing, unless you only make one or two batches of simple syrup a year, using the stove just means there's an extra pot for you to wash. So I say, why bother?
Containers for Storing Simple Syrup
The ideal vessel for simple syrup is something you can easily pour out of and put a cap on. So while mason jars certainly look great, they are difficult to pour from.
At home I prefer storing syrups in glass containers. Glass looks nicer and has less chance of imparting the flavor of that Chinese food that may have sat in it before, which can be an issue with plastic. Though plastic works fine too, just be sure it’s clean.
I think the best and most attractive options are a clear glass bottles with a swing top latch or cork, the center bottle in the image across the page. You can find them in places like The Container Store or Ikea. Beer or soda glass bottles are also fine options; you can use an old cork to stop them. And if you’re willing to forgo aesthetics, a thoroughly washed plastic soda bottle is much cheaper and perfectly functional.
One final tip, don’t store simple syrup with a speed pour in the bottle. Even that small access to air will expedite the growth of mold. Always cover it when not using.
Measuring by Weight vs Volume
I saved this hot button topic for last. Some bartenders fiercely advocate for measuring simple syrup by weight rather than volume. Notably cocktail industry legends Jeffrey Morganthaler and Dave Arnold whose respective books “The Bar Book” and "Liquid Intelligence” I have referenced several times while writing this site. They have a point.
Weight is Technically More Accurate & Consistent
Measuring by weight is always going to be more consistent and precise for food and drink related matters because the possibility of human error is removed.
1 cup of water weighs 8 ounces, while 1 cup of sugar weighs only about 7 ounces. So 1 cup of sugar is equal to the weight of 7/8 cup of water. Proof of this is that 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water makes a little under 1 ¾ cups simple syrup. Not 2 cups. This somewhat confusing because sugar is denser than water - as we know from the remnants of muddled sugar cubes resting on the bottom of our Old Fashioneds - and yet it takes up more space? Yes, because granulated sugar contains minuscule pockets of air in between each granule, which increases the sugar's total volume. These air pockets are unpredictable and incalculable, which puts sugar's volume in flux, whereas water's volume and weight is always consistent. This is the primary reason why measuring simple syrup by weight is more accurate.
Another point for measuring by weight is it produces simple syrup that is dead on 50% sugar, whereas simple syrup measured by volume is usually about 48% sugar. Round numbers are nice.
But Volume is Fine (and what I do)
So why do I still make simple syrup by volume? It's a combination of habit and "if it ain't broke don't fix it." Like many bartenders, I was taught to make simple syrup by volume and, if I do say myself, my cocktails have come out pretty darn good, as have Clover Club's and many other cocktails I've had with simple syrup measuring by volume.
In the end, sugar is sugar, and 48% sugar is pretty darn close to 50% when we're talking ¾ ounce portions. The differences between of one bartender's filling of a ¾ ounce jigger to another will certainly fluctuate more than 2%. It doesn't matter how the syrup was made, so long as the cocktail tastes balanced. Of course, the main advantage of making simple syrup by volume is its convenience and accessibility. All you need is something to measure with.
I'm not disputing that weighing the ingredients is more accurate, I just think it’s an acceptable corner to cut. Be precise with your measures, and it should work out fine. Of course, if you have a scale and prefer to make it by weight, by all means, go ahead.
But Only For 1:1 Syrup
Please note, these comments only apply equal parts simple syrup. Rich simple syrup will differ much more between whether it was made by weight or by volume. A rich syrup measured by weight will be noticeably thicker. In keeping with my habits, I stick with volume.
Additional Simple Syrup
Don’t Pour the Water on Top of the Sugar by Eye
It may seem like a logical and a convenient shortcut to make simple syrup by filling a measuring cup with 1 cup of sugar and then topping it off with water until it reaches 2 cups. But that is a fool’s errand.
As you add the water, the sugar will begin to dissolve. This will reduce it’s volume because the air pockets between the granules will be erased, more on that in the section below. So you’ll end up adding more water than sugar. Even worse, if you continually use this method, you’ll add a different amount of water every time, depending on its temperature. So this approach is not only inaccurate, it is hopelessly inconsistent.
I’m ashamed to admit that I once thought this method worked. I even demonstrated it in the Simple Syrup tutorial I did for Howcast several years ago (you can find it on youtube, I'm too embarrassed to link to it). It was before I was a parent. I was young and unscientifically minded. I'm proud of most of the cocktail videos I’ve appeared in, but that one really sticks in my craw. So please disregard it and use the recipe on this page.
1 cup white sugar
1 cup hot water
In a measuring cup, combine the sugar and water. Stir until dissolved. Refrigerate in a glass container.