Syrups: Keeping it Simple

Lucy Britner delves into the world of sugar syrups – and finds there’s more to them than meets the eye

Like the plot of transatlantic TV show Homeland, sugar syrup started off as a fairly simple affair. It was sugar, dissolved in water to make the addition of sugar to cocktails easier. Then, like Carrie and Brody and the ever-twisting plot of Homeland, simple syrup became very, very complicated.

From grapefruit and Earl Grey tea infusions to basil syrup, both bartenders and producers have learned to innovate. For bartenders who make their own, bespoke creativity is the key. For those who use shop-bought products stability and consistency win the day. 

But as drinks fashions change, bartenders and their small-batch creations can react much faster to new flavour trends. The large production houses, though, have the skills to make a consistent product with a much longer shelf life. 

In exploring what each side has to offer, we find that, like Sergeant Brody, nothing is clear-cut or simple and that it’s common for bartenders to be double agents in their use of syrups. 

Bartender Jose Guerreiro from Yellow Meia Praia hotel in Lagos, Portugal – who was recently named Marie Brizard IBS (International Bartender Seminar) champion) – says he sees little point in making his own syrups. 

“I barely make my own syrups. In my opinion, apart from the simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water) that we learn in the bartenders’ school, I don’t see a large advantage in spending time and money on a homemade syrup,” he says. 

“There are so many flavours and brands on the market it is nearly impossible to use them all in one year of work – and hygiene control is another thing that I have on my mind all of the time.”

Consistency is a concern for London bartender Jay Stapleton from Cellar Door. But he disagrees with Guerreiro on the money front. Stapleton says it’s cheaper to make your own. “Generally I like to make my own syrups as it’s more fun and you can guarantee the quality of the produce used. Also it’s generally cheaper to do it yourself,” he says. 

Stapleton does concede when it comes to Brix levels though. And if you’re not familiar with the term, Brix is the sugar content of an aqueous solution – one degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution – and it was coined by one Mr Brix.

Stapleton continues: “The advantage of using brand syrups is consistency. You can always be sure the Brix level will be exact, which is very hard to do from homemade syrups. 

Lucy Horncastle from The Victoria bar in Birmingham, UK, says shelf life is a problem when it comes to homemade syrups, though, like Stapleton, she prefers to make her own. 

“Consistency is the most obvious reason for using syrup brands, but also shelf life,” she says. 

Rikki Brodrick from tequila venue the Pull and Pump in Brighton, UK, says fermentation can occur. He says when he worked at famous London Tiki bar Trailer Happiness, he used to make his own ginger beer syrup.

He adds: “Homemade syrup can start to ferment. If it’s not in the fridge, it will only last a couple of days. When you make it, you have to make sure the bottles are clean and it often takes a lot of time. But if you do have time, make it yourself because the whole serve becomes so much nicer.”

Brodrick once made a sage syrup for a drink called The Mexican Headhunter that featured in Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry’s book, Beachbum Berry Remixed: A Gallery of Tiki Drinks. He says he had to make the syrup via cold infusion to avoid the herb becoming bitter with the addition of boiling water. “It took four days to make 3.5 litres of sage syrup. I would like to see more herb syrups out there – perhaps a coriander one,” he adds.  

Horncastle says certain homemade syrups add an extra special touch to cocktails. “Our Earl Grey and grapefruit syrup lasts about a week, whatever we don’t use we have to throw away and remake. This can result in quite a bit of waste, however, its what the recipe calls for and big brands don’t make some of the crazier syrups that only one or two bars in a country will use – for obvious reasons.”

There are some flavours that have proved just too much hassle to recreate behind the bar. Brodrick says one of his favourite syrups is passion fruit. “Giffard makes a good one,” he adds. Stapleton says: “At CellarDoor we use Monin Gingerbread as when we have tried making it ourselves the balance of flavour has always been off, so using a brand means you will get a consistent flavour.

“When making syrups I usually find that going heavy on the main flavour is best as sometimes when you use a subtle flavour such as vanilla it can get overpowered by the sweetness of the sugar. The flavour will then get lost in a cocktail, so it’s best to go bold with the main flavour.”

Intense and complex

Guerreiro is also a big fan of Monin’s Gingerbread syrup. He says it’s very intense and complex. “It goes very well with after-dinner drinks such as coffees, whiskies, cognacs and rum.”

Stapleton says colder months mean warm spices are popular, including cinnamon, clove and ginger. “I have a homemade winter syrup at the bar made with orange, orange zest, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, thyme and vanilla. It goes well with dark rum.”

As well as spices, Guerreiro says herbs and fruits remain popular as well as syrups with a pastry dessert base such as pecan pie, blueberry pie and tart au citron.

The sheer number of syrup flavours on offer is mind-blowing. Giffard’s syrup range now includes 67 flavours, while Monin’s range boasts some 140 flavours. Giffard’s selection ranges from classic cocktail flavours such as Grenadine, Coconut, Orgeat and Raspberry to sugar syrups including brown and white sugar as well as agave; to tea syrups that include Chai tea, Earl Grey, Green Tea with Citrus Fruits. 

According to Giffard’s Sophie Godefroy, who looks after marketing and communications, the most popular flavours remains the classic ones such as Vanilla, Gum (or Gomme in French – sugar syrup), Grenadine, Strawberry, Caramel and Coconut.

Godefroy continues: “We can see, however, some more original flavours emerging, such as the elderflower syrup which has been very successful in central Europe for two years now. “There is also a big trend of syrups flavouring lemonades or sparkling waters with flavours such as Cucumber, Mojito, Lime.”

Giffard has recently launched a Woodruff syrup – Woodruff is a fragrant plant native to Europe and often found in Germany. The company launched the syrup to flavour lagers such as the famous Berliner Weisse beer “or white dry wines,” according to Godefroy. 

Monin launches four to five new flavours every year, in an attempt to “get as close as possible to customers’ demand and the trends in the markets”.

Market trends

International product manager Isabelle Issaurat says herbs and spices are still favourite products in the Monin range, including Basil, Tarragon, Cucumber and Spicy Syrup. 

Issaurat adds: “Fresh herbs and spices are still very popular in cocktail mixing, but of course some of them are difficult to find all year round, hard to keep fresh – for instance after two days in the fridge basil is dead – and it is also difficult to get the same taste all year round.

“Using Monin syrups ensures consistency of the taste throughout the year, and all over the world.”  

There seems to be no end to the flavours you can make into syrups and in 2012, Routin – another French syrups producer – launched a liquorice syrup under its 1883 brand. The company suggests mixing it with coffee and whisky. Here’s barista and barman Jonathan Cerna’s recipe:

1 espresso 

5/6 oz (2.5 cl) 1883 Liquorice syrup 

5/6 oz (2.5 cl) whisky

Frothy milk (about 8 oz/25 cl)

Method: Pour the espresso into a large glass. Stir in the syrup and whisky. Top with the preheated milk. 

Routin also has a large range of sugar-free syrups, including Chocolate, Raspberry, Vanilla, Hazelnut, Irish Cream and Almond. No doubt popular with the trend towards healthier living and low-calorie cocktails, but what do bartenders think of sugar-free syrups in cocktails?  

Cellar Door’s Stapleton says: “I found the flavour to be a bit cleaner than sugar syrups.”

But his general reservation about sugar free syrups is that they are often artificially sweetened and, as a bartender, he wants to “use products as fresh as possible and not man-made” in his drinks. 

So you see, the world of sugar syrups is, like Homeland, not as simple as you might’ve first imagined. But as the two continue to evolve, we wager they will just get better and better –  and without a doubt more complicated.