For some reason, people are intimidated by simple syrup; they seem to think it’s a big cooking project. So lately I’ve been on a mission to tell everyone how easy it is—and how a flavored simple syrup, which requires as little fuss as making a cup of tea, can mean the difference between a drink that’s a bit ho-hum and one that’s shockingly delicious.
Let’s start with the basics. I prefer to make simple syrup without turning on my stove. (This involves an electric kettle, which is one of my prized possessions, but if you typically heat water another way, you be you.) Step one is to find a clean Mason jar, then add sugar and hot water. The water doesn’t need to be fully boiling; keep in mind that you’re going to be handling the outside of the jar, so make sure it’s warm, but cool enough to touch. Seal the jar well, and shake the mixture until the sugar is dissolved, which will take only 30 seconds or so. After the sugar has fallen into solution, I let the mixture cool, then refrigerate it until I’m ready to put it to use.
Plain old simple syrup gives you a way of sweetening your drinks consistently, without having the sugar fall to the bottom of the glass to sit there, sad and crunchy and undissolved. But many of my favorite cocktails are punched up with a flavored syrup, which takes just a few more minutes and adds tons more character to a drink. When you’re trying to make cocktails with just a single spirit, and not heading to the liquor store for fancy liqueurs from Italy or aromatized wines from France, it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket. (Looking for more single-spirit drinks? I wrote a whole book of them.)
This mezcal cocktail, created by New York bartender Alan Ruesga-Pelayo, was inspired by agua de jamaica, the refreshing Mexican hibiscus drink. Ruesga-Pelayo serves fancy drinks at some of the city’s best bars, but this one really couldn’t be easier. The hibiscus, in the form of easy-to-find tea bags, steeps in your hot water alongside a sprig of aromatic rosemary. When the steeping’s done, you’ll shake the warm tea with sugar in your Mason jar, and then let it cool before using. The syrup is bright and tart and a little tannic, with a savory, herbal quality that’s ideal for pairing with earthy mezcal. All it needs is a touch of lemon for balance, and a few good handfuls of ice to get things cool.
There’s no need to tell your guests how easy it all was. Let them be impressed.