“Syrups, in all flavors imaginable, have long been a bartender’s best friend; not only can they add that additional kick of flavor, they can also help control the dilution and texture of your finished cocktail,” writes Maja Jaworska, formerly of Team Lyan, a pioneering science-minded group of bars in Europe and the U.S. Learning the basics of sweeteners is just the beginning when building and experimenting with complex cocktails. Between selecting the type of syrup—from Demerara to cane—to boosting that sweetener with flavor-packed ingredients, there’s a lot to consider. To up your syrup game at home, here are her expert tips.
You can use nearly anything to flavor a syrup. The infusion process will vary slightly depending on the ingredient and your desired result.
Keep these factors in mind when constructing a complex syrup.
- Water quality: Since syrup is usually mostly water, its quality will affect the end product, so make sure you use filtered water.
- Shelf life: The higher the sugar content, the longer the shelf life. However, all syrups are prone to fermentation under certain conditions, so make sure you keep them in the fridge and use within a few days (syrups that are a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) to a week (2:1 syrups). You can prolong shelf life by adding acid and/or alcohol; if the mix sits above 12 percent ABV, it should last at least a few months.
- Infusions: Higher temperatures and longer infusion times will yield a stronger flavor (think tea), but they can sometimes extract undesirable flavors. Start lower and go up from there.
Herbs: When infusing herbs into a syrup, first steep the herbs in boiling water (see Super Lyan’s G&T Tonic Syrup) just like you would a tea; the high temperature will help to extract oils and all of the flavor compounds. Steep for about four to five minutes, strain, and add the sugar in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio.
Fruits: When choosing a method for infusing with fruit, it really comes down to the flavor you’re after. Fruits like apples or berries will yield a different flavor profile depending on the use of room temperature or hot water (think fresh versus cooked apples). If you want a fresher flavor, use room temperature water. Simply blitz it up with fruit and sugar in a blender and then strain it. This method will provide a whole lot of intensity without compromising the brightness of the fruit. Likewise, if you want a richer stewed-fruit effect (think jam), cook the fruit, sugar and water on the stove. Or, repeat the same process as above: Combine the hot water, fruit and sugar in a blender and then strain it.
Vegetables: Yes, vegetables. There are plenty of sweet or spicy vegetables and roots that work well in syrups, including rhubarb, carrot, beet and ginger. As with fruit, whether you use heat or not depends on the result you seek. For example, when it comes to rhubarb or beets—whose sweetness enhances with heat—we typically add the sugar, water and chopped vegetables to a pot, bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer it for a few minutes before letting it cool and straining it. Vegetable scraps can be used in sweeteners too: We use the pulp left over from juicing and blend it with sugar and water in a 2:1 ratio before straining and bottling it.
Tea: The Lyan bars have loved using tea to infuse syrups, as it’s a quick and easy way to add flavor to a drink. All tea can be infused in either cold or hot water, but cold infusions, which typically steep for 12 to 24 hours, will yield a mellower and rounder profile than a hot-water brew because colder water extracts fewer tannins. Do remember that sugar is harder to dissolve in cold water, and may need some additional agitation to fully integrate.
If you blend a syrup with alcohol, you create something Super Lyan calls a “batch.” Blending syrups with spirits speeds up the drink-making process: Instead of five or six different ingredients that need to go into a tin or a mixing glass, having it all blended together pre-service frees up staff to chat with guests. Adding a spirit to a flavored syrup also increases its shelf life. [Editor’s note: Try rye whiskey syrup in the Bitter Handshake.]
Another way to add extra dimension to a syrup is by adding acidity. A shrub is a great example of this; it’s essentially a syrup with the addition of vinegar (white wine or apple cider varieties, typically). However, if you’re looking to experiment, you can also use powdered acids to calibrate the pH levels. Simply add them to your finished syrup; the amount depends on your desired end result, but start with one-half to 1 percent of the overall weight for the amount of acid. Lowering the pH will also prolong a syrup’s shelf life and can help balance your cocktail.