DIY Craft Cocktails: Make Your Own Simple Syrup

There's a ridiculous secret underlying the current revolution in cocktail culture: it's actually almost impossible to make a bad drink (especially if bourbon is involved). All that's really required is balance: a strong, tactile, clean note of alcohol, finished with interesting side currents of bitterness, sugar, or salt. A successful drink should land loudly but end quietly on the palate.


While it's good sport to go out specifically for cocktails, it can be even more fun to experiment with their creation and host cocktail parties at home. There are three basic approaches to take when looking to improve one's drink repertoire. You can keep your liquor shelf stocked with expensive (usually imported) liqueurs and other enhancers. You can also dig up obscure recipes that are no longer in general use, such as those that date back to before Prohibition. Or you can use basic cocktail recipes as a starting point, then freestyle off of them with simple syrups made in your own kitchen.


The basic approach for making syrups is to dissolve sugar into water and then flavor the solution with herbs or other aromatics. Since the herbs can come from your (or a friend's) garden, enhanced syrups are a great way to make drinks with exceedingly local ingredients. Keeping your fridge stocked with a few different flavors invites endless experimentation and spontaneity.


The basic formula for each of these simple syrups (and countless others) is a one to two ratio of sugar to water, and then the addition of an ounce of fresh or dried aromatics. Included below are recipes using shiso leaves, lemongrass, mint, dried rosebuds, and dried hibiscus to create five different cocktails: a Dark and Stormy, a Rose Sidecar, a Hibiscus Vodka Tonic, a Lemongrass Cider Manhattan, and a Sake Martini with Shiso.


All of these ingredients can be found in a garden, your co-op, or your grocery store. Check the bulk section for dried ingredients. They are also available online, at shops such as Kalustyans 


Basic Simple Syrup Recipe


Note: the end product amount of syrup is relatively small, as each cocktail only requires a tablespoon or so. This basic recipe/guideline can be multiplied if needed.


2 cups water

1 cup sugar (refined or raw; the color of the sugar will affect the color of the syrup)

1 oz aromatic

(such as shiso leaves, chopped lemongrass, mint leaves, dried rosebuds, or dried hibiscus)



1. Pour water into a small pot and place on stove. Turn heat to medium.

2. Pour sugar into water and stir a few times.

3. Finely chop the shiso leaves, the lemongrass stalks, or the mint leaves. Alternately, if using rosebuds, hibiscus, or any other dry ingredient, crush them into large chunks.

4. When the water is simmering, add the aromatic. Stir gently.

5. Let the aromatics steep in the syrup for ten minutes. Be careful to keep it from a full boil as this could further caramelize the sugar, creating a bitter syrup.

6. Remove the syrup from heat and pour it through a fine mesh strainer into a heat-proof bowl.

7. Using the back of a spoon, press the aromatics to extract the remaining syrup. This has the added effect of creating a solid mass of aromatics that are easier to discard.

8. Let the syrup cool in the bowl for 30-60 minutes before using a funnel to pour it into a sealable bottle. While pouring, try to leave any aromatic particles in the bowl.


The syrup should last, refrigerated, for a few weeks.



Drink Suggestions/Starting Point


Below are five sample recipes using each of these syrups, but they are just the start to an infinite number of potential drinks. Creating cocktails can be a communal event: keep your bar stocked with at least one of each of the basic liquors (gin, whiskey, vodka, tequila, etc.) and a few syrups, and invite a bunch of friends over. The only limit to the number of potential drinks is your and your friends' livers' imaginations. (Please drink responsibly.)




Rose Sidecar 

1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add:

        1 oz shot of gin

        1 oz shot of orange liqueur (such as Triple Sec or      Orange Marnier)

        The juice of half a lemon

        One tablespoon of rose syrup

2. Shake together and strain into a 3.5oz (“classic”) martini glass and garnish with a slice of lemon.






Lemongrass Cider Manhattan
 1. Fill both a cocktail shaker and an old fashioned glass with ice. Add to the shaker:

           1 1/2oz of bourbon or rye

           1 1/2 oz of apple cider

           1/2 oz of lemongrass simple syrup

           1/2 oz of sweet vermouth

           1 dash of bitters

2. Add all to the cocktail shaker, shake, and strain into the glass. Garnish with a cherry or other small fruit. (Frozen blueberries are a personal favorite, for the antioxidants.)





Sake Martini with Shiso

1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add:

        1 1/2 oz of gin

        1 oz shot of sake

        1 dash of dry vermouth

        Two tablespoons of shiso syrup

2. Shake together and strain into a 3.5oz (“classic”) martini glass and garnish with a slice of apple.






Hibiscus Vodka Tonic (pictured at top)

1. Fill a highball glass with ice. Add:

         1 oz shot of vodka

         1 tablespoon of hibiscus syrup

2. Fill glass with tonic water and garnish with a slice of lemon.



Dark and Stormy 

1. Fill a highball glass with ice. Add:

        1 oz shot of dark rum

        2 tablespoons of mint syrup

        Tablespoon of lime juice

2. Stir ingredients in glass then fill with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wedge.






Peter Groynom is a graduate of Carleton College and the San Francisco School of Bartending. He is an avid home cook, a writer, and a Photoshop enthusiast. His photography can be found at Arts and Hovercrafts. He lives in Minneapolis.