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Simple syrup is one of the easiest ingredients you can prepare at home, and it's a basic, indispensable part of the cocktailian's arsenal.
Simple syrup is nothing more than a solution of sugar in water, and because the sugar is already dissolved into the water, you don't need to worry about it settling to the bottom of your cocktail as you drink, making the last few sips cloying and leaving a gummy, sticky mess in the glass.
The Easy Way Out
At its most basic, simple syrup is ridiculously easy to prepare. Bartenders such as Dale DeGroff, who work in high-volume establishments, prefer a method that doesn't even require heat: take equal parts sugar and water, measure them into a tight-lidded jar or bottle, and shake the hell out of it. DeGroff suggests shaking for 3 minutes, letting it rest a minute, and then shaking again for 30 seconds.
If you're planning to simply shake, I recommend using superfine sugar, which is just granulated sugar ground more finely than table sugar. The smaller crystal means it will dissolve more quickly into solution.
Get Rich Quick
Some bartenders and home mixers prefer a stronger syrup, known also as rich simple syrup. Rich syrup is nothing more than simple syrup with a larger proportion of sugar. Some bartenders make it with 1.5 parts sugar to 1 part water, while others go up to a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water.
Rich syrups have two advantages: first, you can get away with using less of per drink, which gives your cocktail its necessary sweetness but reduces the volume of water per cocktail. The second advantage is that rich syrup lasts longer in a refrigerator before spoiling. The reason is, the sugar acts as a preservative.
You can make rich simple syrup by shaking, but it will take longer than a 1:1 ratio. You might find it's easier to heat the syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a small pan. Turn heat to medium and stir. The sugar will dissolve quickly after the water heats up. Remove from heat, allow to cool, bottle, and refrigerate.
More Flavorful Sugars
For a more flavorful syrup, consider using a raw, brown sugar such as turbinado, demerara, or muscovado. These sugars maintain more of a molasses character than white sugar and are thus richer in flavor. They pair especially well with cocktails made with brown spirits such as whiskey, brandy, and some rums and tequilas.
You can make these by shaking, but I'd advise you not to try it. The larger grain of these sugars means they take longer to reach solution in water. It's really best to heat these syrups.
Feel free to play with ratios—1:1, 1.5:1, 2:1. Again, the thicker the syrup, the less you'll need. Prepare them the same way as white syrup: Add sugar and water to a small pan. Turn heat to medium and stir. The sugar will dissolve quickly after the water heats up. Remove from heat, allow to cool, and bottle.