Like the plot of transatlantic TV show Homeland, sugar syrup started off as a fairly simple affair. It was sugar, dissolved in water to make the addition of sugar to cocktails easier. Then, like Carrie and Brody and the ever-twisting plot of Homeland, simple syrup became very, very complicated.
From grapefruit and Earl Grey tea infusions to basil syrup, both bartenders and producers have learned to innovate. For bartenders who make their own, bespoke creativity is the key. For those who use shop-bought products stability and consistency win the day.
But as drinks fashions change, bartenders and their small-batch creations can react much faster to new flavour trends. The large production houses, though, have the skills to make a consistent product with a much longer shelf life.
In exploring what each side has to offer, we find that, like Sergeant Brody, nothing is clear-cut or simple and that it’s common for bartenders to be double agents in their use of syrups.
Bartender Jose Guerreiro from Yellow Meia Praia hotel in Lagos, Portugal – who was recently named Marie Brizard IBS (International Bartender Seminar) champion) – says he sees little point in making his own syrups.
“I barely make my own syrups. In my opinion, apart from the simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water) that we learn in the bartenders’ school, I don’t see a large advantage in spending time and money on a homemade syrup,” he says.
“There are so many flavours and brands on the market it is nearly impossible to use them all in one year of work – and hygiene control is another thing that I have on my mind all of the time.”
Consistency is a concern for London bartender Jay Stapleton from Cellar Door. But he disagrees with Guerreiro on the money front. Stapleton says it’s cheaper to make your own. “Generally I like to make my own syrups as it’s more fun and you can guarantee the quality of the produce used. Also it’s generally cheaper to do it yourself,” he says.
Stapleton does concede when it comes to Brix levels though. And if you’re not familiar with the term, Brix is the sugar content of an aqueous solution – one degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution – and it was coined by one Mr Brix.
Stapleton continues: “The advantage of using brand syrups is consistency. You can always be sure the Brix level will be exact, which is very hard to do from homemade syrups.
Lucy Horncastle from The Victoria bar in Birmingham, UK, says shelf life is a problem when it comes to homemade syrups, though, like Stapleton, she prefers to make her own.
“Consistency is the most obvious reason for using syrup brands, but also shelf life,” she says.