Keep It Simple

20151231_131428Hopefully, everyone out there had a wonderful time ringing in the New Year. We are recovering from our annual NYE cocktail party here at the Whiskey Thief. We have a few resolutions, of course, one of which is to make sure we post here more often (pretty sure that was on our list last year as well). To start off the year, let’s turn to some frequently asked questions.

We got an email the other day asking about how we make, handle, and store simple syrup. A good number of the recipes we post involve simple syrup or flavored syrup, so we thought it would be a good idea to recap our process here for posterity.

Our go-to method is to combine equal parts sugar and water. Unless I’m bartending for an event or throwing a party, I’ll usually use a cup of organic sugar and a cup of filtered water. This yields a little more than a cup of finished syrup, which is just the right amount to fill the bottle that I use. It will last in the fridge for about six weeks, but I tend to use it up much faster than that.

Although we advocate for the 1:1 proportion of sugar to water, a number of bartenders we know prefer different proportions based on amount of sweetness versus amount of dilution added. For some, the proportion has a lot to do with the texture or “mouth-feel” of the cocktail. For more dilution, use more water. For more texture, use more sugar. We’ve had good success with 3:2, but mainly (as the headline says), we like to keep it simple.

Of course, there are different types of sugar out there, and they each have unique qualities. For some tiki drinks and pre-prohibition cocktails, we’ll make a rich syrup using demerara  sugar, which is a deep amber, large-grained sugar with a strong toffee flavor. A rich syrup doubles the amount of sugar you use in the recipe (2:1 instead of 1:1). Other recipes might call for turbinado or other types of sugar. You can also use other sweeteners. Honey mix (equal parts honey and water) is an essential for some classics like the Bee’s Knees and the Gold Rush. Maple syrup and agave syrup can also be diluted for use in cocktails.

For general use in your average home bar, equal parts of tap water and regular white sugar will serve you just fine. To make it:

  • Combine sugar and water in a sauce pan
  • Heat slowly on medium, stirring intermittently
  • Let it come to a boil and stir to make sure all the sugar is dissolved
  • After it boils for 30 seconds to a minute, take it off the heat.
  • After it cools, funnel it into a glass bottle and refrigerate

When I’m experimenting with syrup in a new cocktail, I start with a half-ounce of the syrup and adjust to taste.

Adding herbs, spices, fruits, and other flavors to syrups can add another dimension to your cocktails. I make most of these by adding the extra ingredients in with the sugar and water and then filtering them out after the syrup cools. For our New Year’s Eve party, I made a batch of regular syrup and three special syrups:

  • Rosemary and black pepper – I added two sprigs of rosemary and a tablespoon of black peppercorns. This is great for a variation of the Bengal Tiger, one of my most popular original recipes.
  • Cinnamon and clove – Great for the holidays, I put two cinnamon sticks and four whole cloves into the mix.
  • Hot pepper – I had some dry hot peppers of various sorts that I reconstituted, and then I used the water to make a syrup that is wonderful in margaritas and in my original cocktail the Yetaxa.

On Dilution and Similar Topics

A sophisticated gentleman of our acquaintance recently inquired about our philosophy when it comes to shaking versus stirring. This topic is a puzzler for many a home bartender. We have plenty to say on this and related subjects, and we expect some will disagree. We would love to hear what others think about it, so please do write in.

First of all, some people seem to think that shaking dilutes the drink more than stirring. That’s just silly. It can dilute faster perhaps, but the amount of dilution is purely due to how long you stir/shake and the amount of force used in either method. The main difference is that shaking makes the drink rather cloudy and also creates ice shards, which you may desire in some drinks but not in others.

Personally, when we order a martini out on the town, we always instruct the bartender to stir. In our opinion, a martini should be as clear as summer rain (and a rainy summer day is a perfect time to enjoy one).

Here are some other tips we’ve picked up along the way:


A Manhattan before and after stirring

Amount of Dilution

The amount of dilution you want is a matter of personal preference for the particular drink in question. As noted above, you can achieve the desired amount of dilution using either method. We suppose you could also sit the shaker or mixing glass on a window sill and walk away from it, but most of us want our cocktails more quickly than that.

Amount of Ice to Use

For most drinks, we fill the shaker or mixing glass 2/3 with ice. This is enough for about 1/3 of the ice to peek out above the surface of the undiluted liquid. For our taste, when the ice melts to the point of being even with the surface of the liquid, the drink is usually diluted enough.


We stir anything composed entirely of base liquor, liqueur, vermouth, and bitters. Typically, these are drinks that we don’t want to cloud up: e.g., Martini, Manhattan, negroni, and all the various members of those families of drinks, including the Boulevardier, Remember the Maine, and Raultini.

We use glass instead of a metal tin when we prepare a stirred drink, mainly because it looks prettier. Some bartenders have very fancy mixing glasses with pouring spouts built in, but we just use a standard pint glass.


We shake anything that contains citrus or egg white. That includes margaritas, gimlets, daiquiris, whiskey sours, and the like.

A note on dry shaking: The dry shake is not just a hangover symptom. It’s also an important step in any drink that includes eggs, such as sours, fizzes, flips, etc. This is especially true if there is citrus AND egg. The protein in the egg and the acid in the citrus form an emulsion, which gives the drink the proper texture and also helps create foam. The ingredients emulsify best at room temperature. Therefore, you want to give it a dry shake BEFORE you add ice and then shake it again.

Boston Shaker

Boston Shaker

Shaker Preferences

There is a lot of confusion about the names of different types of cocktail shakers, but the following adheres to the terminology we see most often used among professionals.

  • A Boston shaker is a two-piece set composed of a small tin and a larger tin.
  • An apparatus with a built-in strainer and a cap is called a cobbler shaker.
  • There are also French shakers, which are basically cobbler shakers without the built-in strainer.

Most of the pros we know prefer a Boston shaker, or they improvise a variation using a mixing glass and a large tin. We prefer a Boston shaker ourselves because it’s easy to clean and highly versatile. We don’t like to use a glass and tin because we have broken too many of our pint glasses experimenting with that method.

Other than that, it is really just a matter of personal preference. Let us know what you think about dilution methods and related topics in the comments.