Tiki Essentials: Simple Syrup—Surprisingly Easy, Surprisingly Complicated


Neither of these usual forms of sugar are terribly useful in most cocktails

I want to get this post up before Tiki Month gets too much older, because if you want to get your Tiki on, you will have to have a supply of sugar syrups. It is easy for those of us who have been inside the puzzle palace that is complex cocktails for a long time to forget how strange and terra incognita such simple items in a recipe as Simple Syrup can be. And then in Tiki and other vintage cocktails you find such ingredients listed as Rock Candy Syrup, or Gomme Syrup, often used as apparent synonyms for simple.

Simple syrup is a helluva lot simpler than it sounds to the uninitiated. You can almost never find it in stores. And in most folks, the word syrup conjures up the image of hardy Vermonters trudging through a snowy forest, hammering wooden buckets to trees to make them bleed. Truth is, if you like good drinks of any kind, and you have a kitchen, then you can likely make true simple syrup right now. And I mean right now, as in you could and should have some simple syrup for your mixing pleasure within 15 minutes at most after reading this post.

The simple truth of Simple Syrup is that it is nothing more than sugar and water, forced into permanent solution. Here’s the recipe:

SIMPLE SYRUP

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups refined sugar

In a small saucepan, put sugar. Pour water slowly over it. Bring to a rolling boil with large bubbles popping over the entire surface. Cool.

That’s absolutely all. Don’t stir it, or you will have burnt sugar to clean off the pot. Once it is cool, put it in a squeeze bottle and store in the fridge. It will last a month or more, unless you use it first. And you will use it first, once you get a grasp on what it can do in drinks, even if you don’t particularly like sweet ones.

That’s really it. Lots of folks can just leave it at that and use this Simple Syrup in almost any cocktail recipe that calls for Simple, Rock Candy, Gomme, or any other syrup that isn’t looking to add a specific flavor, only sweet. And there is absolutely no excuse for any commercial bar attached to a kitchen to not have it.

Simple, right?

Aaaaand then it isn’t. Because Rock Candy Syrup, Heavy Syrup, and Gomme Syrup aren’t just simple syrup. And while using Simple in a recipe that calls for one of the others will probably get you a good result, you will not get the sweetness, flavor profile, or perhaps the texture that the drink is really supposed to have.

Heavy Syrup, or Heavy Simple Syrup, is really just Simple with one and a half to twice the sugar. It is just as easy to make, but I don’t bother with it, since in virtually any case, you can just use twice as much Simple as the called for amount of Heavy. Really, life is too short for that many bottles in your bar fridge. Unless you have a specific use for it….

Rock Candy Syrup is harder. Harder to make, and harder to keep. For an insanely complex discussion about how to make and keep Rock Candy Syrup, see this thread over at Tiki Central by The Gnomon. I’ll just summarize where he’s going and add a few thoughts. Rock Candy Syrup is a simple syrup with so much sugar in solution that that whole thing I said about it being permanent? Not so much.
Rock Candy Syrup has a couple of uses. First, and most common, especially if you have kids, is to dangle string or sticks into it and watch as the supersaturated sugar leaves solution and sticks to the intruder, forming rock candy. If you dangle swizzle sticks in there, you end up with an awesome way to let your guests sweeten their own drinks to taste, as in The Pogo Stick cocktail, which I featured during Tiki Month 2010.
Many older drinks also call for it, including Trader Vic’s original formulation of the Mai Tai. If you find yourself wanting to try a bunch of drinks that call for it, Tiki or otherwise, give it a whirl, otherwise just pump up the simple even more, because Rock Candy Syrup is neither simple to make, nor to store.

It takes a long time to make Rock Candy Syrup. You have to slowly add the sugar as it gets more dense in order to know when it has had enough. I also strongly recommend the Ball Jar “double boiler” method described in the post mentioned above. If you let a high-sugar content solution boil directly, things happen. Chemical things. You won’t have a sugar solution anymore, you will have candy. You do not want candy.

Yes I do!

Not for what you want Rock Candy Syrup for. It won’t crystallize again, and it won’t pour. Don’t. Let. It. boil.
Additionally, storing good Rock Candy Syrup is a pain as well. It doesn’t particularly like to stay in solution, so expect crystals everywhere, which look nice but are a pain to clean and can clog your spout. Make Rock Candy Syrup if you want sugar swizzles, or if you want a good science experiment to do with your kids. Otherwise you have my official blessing to skip it.

What Doug isn’t telling you is that he failed miserably to make Rock Candy syrup himself because he did everything he just told you not to do.

I will bring back the bird, so help me….

Shutting up now!

Gomme Syrup is another matter. This is a very old drink ingredient, and despite today’s cocktail Renascence, I still can find no commercial product available. Any simple syrup will change the texture of drink just a little, in addition to sweetening it. But Gomme Syrup will dramatically alter it, adding a rich, silky element that can almost make the drink coat the inside of your mouth like a nice sauce.
Gomme Syrup is a heavy simple syrup, enriched with gum arabic, a natural thickening agent. It isn’t readily available in food grade in most places, but Amazon has lots of it in all sorts of amounts.

Both Paul Clarke and Tiare have longer rundowns on making Gomme Syrup, but here’s the short version:
First, make a Gomme:

GOMME GOOP

  • 1 part gum arabic
  • 1 part water

Stir this until it is completely combined and let sit overnight.

Now make a Heavy Simple Syrup, as I outlined above (4 parts water, 6-8 parts sugar). Just as it first comes to a boil, add in the Gomme Goop. As soon as it foams, remove from the heat. Remove the majority of the foamy scum with a spoon and let cool enough to bottle. Strain the syrup through light cheesecloth as you pour it into the bottle.

So there you have it. As you work your way through Tiki Month, choose which of these you want to have, make them up, and enjoy with me! And hang with me if you want to know about all those fruity syrups you see in Tiki recipes, I’ll have a story on them too, in short order.

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

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