Sweetness in Simplicity

O’ sugar – a major driving force in the history of empire, war, conquest, colonialism, slavery, rum, and the creation of the concept of ‘white’ and ‘black’ ethnicity.  Yes, before the 1500’s there is no record that anyone simplified ethnicity down to ‘white’ and ‘black.’  If you don’t believe it, read “Sugar in the Blood” by Andrea Stuart.

O’ pure water – the industrial revolution made it so plentiful that almost all salable spirits slipped under proof.  Its plentitude also allowed London-style gin to be made ‘dry’ without adding any sugar (leaving the older, sweetened version to be called ‘old tom’ after its old-fashioned-ness and the tom-cat it had been sold from).  Cheap, pure water also made it common for bartenders to use it to pre-dissolve sugar in.  The industrial freezing of water made ice cheap enough to count its use per drink in scoops rather than in lumps.   Those changes led to true cocktails (such as the Whiskey Cocktail) being made with simple syrup and plenty of ice (to stir it in before straining).  That left a Whiskey Cocktail made the old way with dry sugar and relatively-little water or ice to become called the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.

Sugar and water dissolved together is simple syrup – one of the useful consequences of global and industrial realities.

Plain, refined sugar (sucrose) is used to sweeten other ingredients without otherwise changing their flavor.  Simple syrup is simply refined sugar dissolved into water, and nothing else.  It is used in drinks to quickly and evenly distribute sugar throughout other liquids.

The following chart compares the flavor and sweetness of refined sugar (and simple syrup) to other sweeteners derived of sugar cane, such as cane nectar (or syrup), also golden syrup (essentially ultra-light molasses) and the various grades of treacle or true molasses – including light molasses (a.k.a. Barbados molasses), medium molasses (a.k.a. black strap molasses), and heavy molasses (a.k.a. black treacle or robust molasses).

Sugar & Cane & Molasses

If flavorless gum – such as acacia gum (a.k.a. gum Arabic) or guar gum – is added to thicken simple syrup, it is called gum syrup, or gomme syrup.

If simple syrup contains so much sugar that sugar crystals form rock candy at the bottom of the container (or on string suspended in it), it is called rock candy syrup.

It has become thoughtlessly-fashionable to call all ‘home-made’ syrup made of refined sugar, ‘simple syrup.’  But so-called ‘cinnamon simple syrup’ (as just one example) is really cinnamon-flavored syrup.  It is not simple syrup – a simple solution of highly refined, relatively-flavorless sugar in relatively-pure water.  In short, simple syrup plus other ingredients is no longer simple.

I believe that one should consider the amount of sugar desired in a drink, and then calculate how much simple syrup will contain that amount of sugar.  For this, the use of one-to-one (1:1) sugar syrup is advised.

If one makes 1:1 simple syrup from a cup of granulated sugar (not superfine) and a cup of water, the yield will be almost exactly 1½ cups of syrup.  That means that the cup of sugar is spread out into the volume of 1½ cups of syrup.  That means that if you know the amount of sugar that you want in a drink, but are using 1:1 simple syrup, multiply the sugar amount by 1.5.  Click on the image below to read it more clearly.


Heat decomposes sucrose into other sugars (glucose and fructose), and further heating will decompose even those until the result is caramel.  For this reason, if I am making simple syrup in order to more-easily get sugar (sucrose) into other ingredients, I never use heat to make it.  Here is a recipe from the syrup fabrication section of my own book.


3 thoughts on “Sweetness in Simplicity

  1. Really enjoying your explorations of the finer points of cocktaildom. As you pointed out, 1 cup sugar + 1 cup water < 2 cups syrup, which is why I always make syrup by mass and then explicitly state the simple syrup ratio in all recipes (ie. a 1:1 simple syrup is one made with equal masses of sugar and water.

    Keep up the curiousity!

    1. Hello Kevin,
      Thank you for your comment. I am curious as to how much of your equal-mass simple syrup would contain exactly a teaspoon of sugar? A tablespoon? Would one have to know the exact masses of those traditional measurements of volume to calculate for your equal-mass simple syrup?

  2. 1 teaspoon of superfine sugar is 4-4.5 grams, whereas one teaspoon of water is 5. I’ve always used mass-based measurements for things that combine solids and liquids, especially when the solids have a different “packing density” arrangement between the various types. Professional bakers rely on weight-based measurements to side-step the entire problem. These packing-arrangement differences creates variance that can sometimes be detectible. As you use sugars with larger crystals, this deviation will only increase, unless you take care to “pack” it, I suppose. (More variance!)

    You can compute the “error” between mass + volumetric bases for the sugar portion by weighing 10 tablespoons of sugar, and then dividing the scale’s reading by 30. This will give you a pretty accurate per-teaspoon weight measurement.

    Most kitchen scales don’t have much accuracy at the extreme low-end of their range. The error is at least 10%, but probably close to 20%.

    Have you played around with making palm sugar based simple syrup, especially for “exotic” punches made with Batavia or Ceylon arrack, maybe garnished or even infused with Persicaria odorata (rau răm, laksa leaf, “Vietnamese mint”)?

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