Combine sugar and water, and simmer until dissolved. A cinch to make, simple syrup is essential for good cocktailing, adding weight and balance to drinks.
Raise the bar by adding chopped fresh herbs like rosemary or lavender, or dried spices like cardamom or star anise, to the still warm syrup, and then steeping the covered mixture overnight. (Start with a two-to-one ratio of water to sugar, so the flavor stays front and center.) Infused syrups add fragrance and complexity to a cocktail, helping the home bartender mix up drinks comparable to the sophisticated sips found at that new secret bar in town.
A seasonal approach is key, according to Chantal Tseng, bartender at Washington, DC’s Tabard Inn. She checks with the kitchen to see what’s fresh and on the menu, and incorporates these ingredients into syrups for her drinks. So she may snip lemon verbena leaves from the rooftop garden for warmer weather sips, and add cardamom pods to honey syrup for winter libations.
Washington, DC Mixologist Jonathan Harris suggests exploring the different varieties of available sugars. He prefers the robust flavor of panela from Latin America for Mojitos, and also creates infusions with palm sugar, maple syrup, birch sap and Indian jaggery. A quick trip to an ethnic grocery store, and “you can really fine-tune your infusions to create something highly evocative,” explains Harris.
So before you add ice to the shaker, reach for the sugar bowl and hit that spice rack.