Cocktail Pantry Staples: Sugar Syrup & Agave
Words by Jane Ryan
What ingredient does a Tommy's Margarita, a Porn Star Martini, a Bramble and an Old Fashioned have in common? A sweetner. Often the after-thought of most cocktails, consistent and quality sugar syrups make a big difference on final flavour. Here's everything you need to know.
For most home bartenders there are only two essential sugar syrups you'll need, and they're in the title so no prizes for guessing which ones. With a good quality sugar syrup and agave syrup you'll be able to balance the majority of the cocktails on this website (which numbers over 10,000).
Syrups aren't just about balancing however, they play an important role in bringing to life a lot of the flavours found in a cocktail, from the sourness in lemon juice to the jammy flavours in a raspberry. As Simon Difford has written before, sugar syrup is one of the simplest and yet also most misunderstood and complex products used.
Granulated sugar does not dissolve easily in cold liquids, particularly alcohol, which is why we use a syrup to better integrate with a cocktail. To achieve consistently good and balanced drinks you'll need to know your sugar syrup has the same sweetness level each time you use it. You'll see two ways we measure this - the first is a simple note on recipes saying 2:1 sugar syrup or 1:1. The ratio is sugar to water, and here at Difford's Guide we prefer 2:1 as it means less dilution going into our drink. A small amount perhaps, and call us perfectionists if you must, but all the small admissions like a 1:1 syrup and 'wet ice' and suddenly your drink is over-diluted.
The second measurement of a liquid's sweetness is Brix. The simplest way to explain is that one degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of liquid and represents the strength of the solution as a percentage by mass. The only thing you'll need to take away from this is that a 2:1 syrup is typically 65.0°brix and a 1:1 is 50.0°brix - a difference big enough to taste in your drinks. One other crucial point is measuring your ratio by volume or weight changes the brix of your syrup.
Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup
Brix and ratios are important to understanding how sweet a syrup will be - but they're also a minefield easily avoided if you opt for a pre-made sugar syrup. Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup has a 65.0°brix, and it stays consistent with each and every bottle - meaning long gone are our days of bothering to make our own 2:1 sugar syrup. This is what all our recipes are based on, and we'd recommend you do the same - that way all your cocktails will be beautifully balanced and never surprisingly tart or sickly-sweet.
It's important to opt for a syrup that uses pure cane, with no corn or sucrose syrup, as this will give your cocktails a velvety texture. Furthermore, with a base of Monin's Pure Cane you'll also be able to make your own infusions if a recipe calls for a flavoured syrup, such as mint. You add fruits or herbs to a pot with the syrup and simply heat to a gentle simmer - don't overheat or you'll lose the great texture. As a note, this syrup is vegan, non-GMO and Kosher.
Try it in...
With: Gin, lemon, Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup and crème de mûre (blackberry liqueur)
We say: One of the best and most popular drinks to come out of the 1980s.
With: the spirit of your choice, lemon, Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup, egg white and bitters.
We say: Smooth with a hint of citrus sourness and an invigorating blast of spirit. Try it with whiskey, gin, scotch, pisco and amaretto.
With: Mint leaves, cognac. straight rye whiskey, Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup and orange bitters
We say: Rye whiskey and cognac combine harmoniously in this delicious julep.
Agave syrup comes from the agave plant, it's essentially the sweet sap or juices that are trapped in the core of the plant, known as the piña, which are first filtered and then heated up to produce the syrup. Naturally, agave syrup pairs particularly well with tequila, as they come from the same plant. Agave syrup is as much as two-thirds sweeter than sugar but is less viscous than honey and so easier to mix.
Monin Agave Syrup
Using a quality agave is crucial when mixing anything from a Tommy's Margarita to a Tequila Old Fashioned, and again you're going to want to be consistent. We use agave rather than sugar syrup in tequila and mezcal cocktails due to its rounder, fuller flavour that complements the spirit, and despite being technically sweeter, agave has a mellowness to it that allows the green vegetal notes in tequila to shine. Grab yourself one specifically for bartenders - the Monin Agave Syrup is designed to dissolve instantly in hot and cold beverages, so you won't be left with a syrup left at the bottom of your shaker and not in your cocktail.
Try it in...
With: 100% agave reposado tequila, lime juice, Monin Agave syrup and margarita bitters (optional).
We say: The flavour of agave is king in this simple Margarita, made without the traditional orange liqueur.
Fire & Brimstone
With: Red jalapeño/fresno chili, mezcal, triple sec liqueur infused with Earl Grey tea, Monin Agave syrup, lemon juice and orange bitters.
We say: A refreshing riff on a Mezcal Margarita with enlivening chili heat.
The Next Tier: Orgeat, Falernum & Grenadine
While a good sugar syrup and agave syrup are essential for home bartenders, there are three more syrups you'll see commonly called for in recipes. If you're serious about exploring cocktails you'll want to have these in your pantry as well.
Orgeat is a syrup traditionally made from almonds, sugar and rose water or orange flower water. It is used as a powerful and flavourful sweetener and adds a distinctly almond/marzipan and bittersweet notes to drinks.
Grenadine syrup is an ingredient used in many cocktails, including the ever popular tequila sunrise. Grenadine is a non-alcoholic pomegranate-flavoured syrup that can be used to balance out tart or acidic flavours in cocktails, with over 200 recipes on Difford's Guide calling for it.
Falernum syrup is a subtle, balanced mix of spices, perfectly combining lime acidity with mellow almond notes the essential ingredient for any Tiki cocktail. Falernum has its origins in Barbados, with recipes dating back to the mid-19th Century, making it a staple for your vintage cocktails. Monin has developed the first, uniquely consistent-tasting Falernum syrup.