You’re probably as sick of your home bar right now as I am. After all, a man cannot live on Old Fashioneds and Negronis and Boulevardiers alone (though many have tried). In a time when the occasional drink is a relief from the stressors of absolutely everything going on, it’s the perfect excuse to up our cocktail game.
But what do you do when you’ve run through every possible combination of spirits, cordials, and bitters in your liquor cabinet? In the gilded cage that is my apartment, where I’ve spent the last five weeks working from home and decluttering like crazy, I’ve discovered one easy, no-fuss way to shake up one’s booze menu: infuse your simple syrups.
Simple syrup is a cinch to make (hence the name). Just bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil until the sugar dissolves. You can use it to sweeten up everything from gin fizzes to whiskey sours. But beyond its basic applications, syrup can be infused with all kinds of kitchen miscellany, from herbs to fruits to spices, any or all of which can add tasty dimension to the cocktails currently keeping you afloat.
Here’s my method: In a small saucepan, I heat up ½ cup sugar and ½ cup water, stirring occasionally until dissolved. While the syrup is heating up, I’ll bash or muddle the ingredients I want to infuse in a measuring cup, just to agitate it and get all those flavorful oils out in the open.
Once the syrup’s made, I pour it over the ingredients and let everything steep for at least 2-3 hours. (The longer you let it steep, the deeper the flavor, but after a while, you’ll get diminishing returns.) After that, I strain the syrup into a Mason jar and store in the fridge for up to a week. Well, that’s how long you should keep it there; I admit I’ve stretched that out a bit longer out of either forgetfulness or bravery, depending on how nice you want to be to me.
“But Clint,” you may ask, “if I’ve already got ginger/mint/herbs/etc., why not just put them in the drink directly? Smashes and juleps exist, you know!” Well, to that somewhat rude question, I say two things:
- Infusing simple syrups can be a good way to preserve the flavor of your produce before it goes bad, allowing you to make minty Moscow mules long after your herbs wilt.
- You can cut down on all the muddling, slicing, and extra work you’d otherwise need to make those more complicated cocktails. You’re drinking these at home; you don’t have to impress anybody with a photogenic highball.
Here are a few infusions I’ve been enjoying lately, any of which can inject new life into your home bar.
Herbs are some of the easiest things to infuse your syrups with. I loves me a Moscow mule, but I only had so much time before my mint was going to wilt. The solution: a pale-green syrup I can toss in my favorite mule to offset the zing of lime and the tartness of the ginger beer.
Minty Moscow Mule: 1 ½ oz. Tito’s vodka, ½ oz. lime juice, ½ oz. mint simple syrup, 4 oz. ginger beer
Combine in a rocks glass (or copper mug) over large ice cubes; stir to combine.
Berries go bad even faster than herbs. I’ve taken strawberries or raspberries home and put them in the fridge, only for them to get moldy the very next day. But infusing them in a simple syrup is a nice way to round out the sickly sweetness of the sugar.
Framboise Sauvage: 1¼ oz. Plymouth gin, ½ oz. lemon juice, ½ oz. raspberry simple syrup, 2 oz. champagne
Pour everything but the champagne into a cocktail shaker filled with ice, then shake for 7-10 seconds. Pour the champagne into a chilled coupe glass and strain the cocktail over it.
Basil syrups can lend a nice vegetal kick to a lot of gin drinks.
Basil Rickey: 1¾ oz. Plymouth gin, ¾ oz. basil syrup, 4 oz. club soda
Forget the shaker—you can just build it in a Collins glass. Pour gin and syrup over ice; close with a shaker top and shake to combine. Pour the club soda over it and serve.
Got a spare vanilla bean pod you’ve already scraped out for baking? Steep it in some simple syrup to add complexity to more astringent, warming cocktails. (If you don’t have a pod, I’ve even just thrown a capful of vanilla extract into my syrups before, and that works nicely, too.)
Vanilla Old Fashioned: ½ oz. vanilla syrup, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 2 oz. Bulleit bourbon, ¼ oz. cold water, orange twist
Pour the syrup and bitters into the bottom of a rocks glass, add large ice cubes, add the bourbon and splash of water, and stir to combine. Add orange twist and serve.
Just trust me on this. It works. Sweet and spicy in equal measure, it’s a helluva way to add some much-needed heat to tequila drinks. Which chilis you use is up to you; I just go for red pepper flakes in a pinch, but jalapenos, serranos, or any number of dried chilis all work wonders. (You can try habaneros, but godspeed if you do.)
Chili Margarita: 2 oz. silver tequila, 1 oz. lime juice, ½ oz. chili simple syrup
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice and shake to combine. Strain into a margarita or cocktail glass (preferably rimmed with salt, sugar, and chili powder) and serve.
The zesty, woody flavors of ginger obviously go well with cocktails—see the Ginger Smash in all its delectable varieties—but putting them in a syrup helpfully bypasses all the scraping and chopping you’d normally have to go through to include it. (Plus, if you’re out of ginger ale but have some seltzer on hand, combining the two makes for a suitable substitute in a pinch.)
MacGyvered Rum and Ginger: 2 oz. Bacardi silver rum, ½ oz. ginger simple syrup, 4 oz. seltzer
Combine in a rocks glass over ice.
You know what really works well? Cinnamon and Scotch. No, seriously, try it: break up a cinnamon stick and steep it in a fresh batch of simple syrup (which you can make with demerara sugar for extra fanciness). Your taste buds might like what you find.
Cinnamon Scotch Sour: 2 oz. Scotch, 1 oz. lemon juice, 1 oz. cinnamon syrup, dash of Angostura bitters
Combine in a shaker with ice, shake for 8 to 10 seconds until combined, then pour over ice in a chilled rocks glass.