No, You Don’t Need Simple Syrup
Almost anything made of actual sugar works as a substitute for simple syrup, and almost anything is better anyway
If you run a search for “substitute for simple syrup,” you’ll find a lot of recipes for simple syrup, most of them extolling its unique … simplicity. “Mix 1 part sugar and 1 part water. Stir until dissolved.” And it really is that simple (hence the term “simple syrup,” duh).
Simple syrup is sugar and water, and that’s what those recipes will tell you to put together: sugar and water. Simple syrup made using the “hot” method --- pouring boiling water over an equivalent amount of granulated sugar --- will last about a month in the fridge. Made with cold water, the syrup will hang on less than a month, depending on how cold your fridge is.
But what you found when you Googled “substitute for simple syrup” or “simple syrup substitute” were substitutes for simple syrup purchased at a grocery store. They’re not getting at the real problem. They’re not telling you that you seriously don’t even need that syrup in the first place. Let's repeat: You don't need simple syrup.
Why You Think You Need Simple Syrup
Look up cocktail recipes online, or download a cocktail recipe app, or crack open a bartending manual or a cooking magazine, and you’ll come away thinking you do in fact need simple syrup, or a substitute for simple syrup, to mix up a proper drink.
That’s just not true.
In fact, if you’re hoping to produce an authentic cocktail that tastes the way its inventor intended, steer clear of simple syrup, and simple syrup substitutes. Stay especially far from store-bought simple syrup, which often includes preservatives that alter the flavor of the syrup mixture.
When a classic cocktail recipe calls for simple syrup, 99 percent of the time what you really need isn’t a substitute for simple syrup. You want the stuff simple syrup is a substitute for. You want real cane sugar, like what’s in Proof (we’ll get to that eventually).
Things That Are Real Sugar
Granulated refined sugar, aka “white sugar,” aka “regular” sugar, is the sugar you quite possibly have in your pantry or on your countertop. It’s the sugar most of us cook and bake with and stir into our coffee and sprinkle on our cereal, and it’s perfectly fine for cocktails, too. It’s not only an acceptable substitute for simple syrup, it’s what it is typically made from --- 1 part refined sugar + 1 part water.
The key difference between white sugar and other sugars is that white sugar is highly refined cane sugar --- it’s had all of the molasses cooked out of it. In terms of flavor, that means it’s just sweet, with not a whole lot else going on flavor-wise.
Superfine granulated sugar, while technically the exact same substance as regular granulated sugar, is, as the name suggests, more finely ground. Superfine sugar is still nice sugary crystals, as opposed to the almost eerily fine, uncannily cool sugar-cornstarch mixture sold as powdered sugar, but superfine sugar dissolves a whole lot faster than granulated sugar. The difference is negligible in hot beverages, but in cold ones, and most cocktails, it does dissolve more efficiently than regular sugar.
A great many fans of the Old Fashioned maintain that an Old Fashioned isn’t an Old Fashioned unless it’s made the “old-fashioned” way: with a sugar cube.
While it’s true that some of the holy books of the cocktail revival (Meehan’s Bartender Manual and The Art of Mixology among them) call for sugar cubes in their Old Fashioned recipes, let’s not be silly. A sugar cube is a teaspoon of granulated sugar pressed into a cube.
We’ll admit that crunching up that cube as you muddle sugar and bitters makes a cool sound, but there’s nothing more specifically authentic about the cube than about 1 tsp. of loose granulated sugar. Even the sound is pretty much the same.
Besides, if you really want to get persnickity about your sweetener’s ye olde tyme authenticity you’re going to have to hunt up a sugar loaf --- the massive, artillery-shell-shaped block of not-fully-refined sugar that was likely the sweetener used to make the original, early-1800s Old Fashioned (called simply “Cocktail” or “Whiskey Cocktail” back then). Sugar loaves were hard as rocks and required a special set of shears called “sugar nips” to break off chunks. Let’s all just take a moment to stare off into the middle distance and appreciate that more innocent age, a time when “sugar nips” could only mean a specialized culinary tool and not some other thing or pair of things entirely.
For a modern analog to the sugar loaf, check out the panela sold throughout Latin America; now picture it paler and cement-hard and the size of a Jack Russell terrier, and you’ve got a sugar loaf.
Turbinado and Demerara
Both minimally refined cane sugars, turbinado and demerara retain more of the plant’s natural flavor and molasses. That’s why both are light brown in color, though not quite as dark as what we usually call “brown sugar.” Their taste is also closer to that of refined sugar than to brown sugar, but there’s definitely more there there.
Of the two, turbinado tends to be most readily available --- Sugar in the Raw, found in most grocery stores and the napkin-and-stirrer table at Starbucks, is one brand --- and it’s pourable like granulated sugar, albeit coarser.
Turbinado is often touted as a direct one-to-one substitute for white sugar, while demerara is the brown sugar alternative. Turbinado’s texture is decidedly drier than that of the brown varieties, while demerara retains some moisture (though not as much as brown). Demerara crystals are also larger than turbinado, making them a slower stir into cocktails.
Both sugars (and syrup made from them) have their admirers, and many bartenders swear by demerara in syrup form as the basis for Old Fashioneds that incorporate syrup. Because of their richer, slightly caramel/toffee flavors, turbinado and demerara tend not to get lost in a drink the way more refined sugars and syrups do.
Why Are You So Mean About Syrup?
"What about the syrup? Get back to the simple syrup! What’s so bad about it, anyway?”
Nothing, really. It’s just so … simple.
When you’re settling in to fix yourself a drink, why expend any effort at all choosing a nice bourbon or rye, getting out the right glass, measuring ingredients, and so on, and then just slop in some ultra-refined, essentially flavorless sugar goo out of a plastic squeeze bottle? Really?
Simple syrup is basically the blandest possible substance that still counts as “sweet.”
What about sweeteners like agave, honey, maple syrup, and other cocktail sweeteners? Those are specialty items, my dude. You’ll see them in lots of recipes, and they’re magnificent --- when called for. Use one if you like the flavor, but again: If what you’re going for is authenticity, use a quality cane sugar when you’re making a classic American cocktail like an Old Fashioned. There’s always the one-step option: choose a Proof Syrup, which makes ample use of organic cane sugar in its recipe (and maple in its Maple Bacon variety).
Syrup, or No Syrup? Substituting for Simple Syrup
So, syrup or no syrup? Do you need syrup in your Old Fashioned, or will a syrup substitute (an alternative to syrup) do the job? What do you do if you’re working from a recipe that calls for simple syrup but you’ve wisely chosen to skip both the supermarket simple syrup and the slightly messy homemade version? What’s your simple syrup substitute going to look like?
If you decide to go granulated, don’t go one for one --- failure to account for the extra water in simple syrup can result in a too-sweet drink. One teaspoon of granulated white sugar equals about 1.5 teaspoons of simple syrup. If your recipe calls for a teaspoon of simple syrup, you might want to drop in only about two-thirds of a teaspoon of the granulated variety. You can always add more sugar, but you can’t take it back out.
Don’t bother with simple syrup in drinks. There are better ways to sweeten your cocktail. Proof, made with cane sugar and oleo saccharum, is one.
Whatever you’re drinking, what you want is a means of sweetening --- or, more accurately, gently tempering --- your liquor that honors and complements its flavors. Ultra-refined sugar in any of its forms, whether syrup, granulated, or superfine, just isn’t the most flavorful route.