Culture: The Best Simple Syrup Substitutes, According to Drinks Pros
“Simple syrup is a fairly neutral sweetener,” says Kara Newman, Wine Enthusiast writer at large and spirits reviewer. Its mild profile lends itself to a whole host of cocktails, from the whiskey-centric Sazerac to the Long Island Iced Tea. But what is simple syrup, exactly? Answer: It’s sugar dissolved in water. (Yes, it’s really that simple.)
However, sometimes you don’t have simple syrup on hand and can’t quickly whip some up. Maybe you don’t have any sugar in your pantry at all. Perhaps you want to use an ingredient with a different flavor profile in a drink recipe that calls for simple syrup. Never fear, that’s where simple syrup substitutes can come in handy.
“It’s nice to work with other sweeteners, which can add nuanced flavor or texture to a drink,” says Newman. “Making simple syrup is easy, but sometimes it’s even easier to reach for something that’s already in your fridge or pantry, like maple syrup or jam.”
Saul Ranella, cocktail and spirits manager at Hog Island Oyster Co. in California, echoes this sentiment. “I’m always on the hunt for new and exciting ways to sweeten up my drinks beyond the usual simple syrup,” he says.
You can usually swap appropriate alternatives for a recipe’s simple syrup in a 1:1 ratio, with noted exceptions. Some ingredients might be more or less sweet than simple syrup, so it’s best to adjust your proportions accordingly.
Without any further ado, here are some of the best simple syrup substitutes according to drink pros.
Best Simple Syrup Substitutes
“Agave syrup is equal parts agave nectar and water,” Dylan Garret previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Simply add agave nectar to a saucepan with water and stir over medium heat until the honey dissolves.
Jacy Topps, print assistant editor and Languedoc-Roussillon and Vin de France reviewer at Wine Enthusiast, loves this ingredient as a replacement for simple syrup. ““The flavor is neutral, and the consistency is similar [to simple syrup] so it’s a perfect substitute,” she says.
“Honey syrup is typically a 1:1 combination of honey and water,” Garret previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast magazine. It’s made just like you would agave or simple syrup.
“It is versatile for a wide range of drinks,” adds Newman.
More than merely a breakfast condiment staple, maple syrup works wonderings in cocktails, especially those that highlight spirits like whiskey or rum.
“Maple syrup can be a nice addition to drinks made with barrel-aged spirits since some already have maple-like flavors naturally from the oak barrels,” says Newman. “I developed a Flapjack Old Fashioned for Nightcap using maple syrup, and it’s been one of the most popular drinks from the book.”
You’ll find jam in cocktails like the , which calls for English orange marmalade. (Sure, marmelade is technically a fruit preserve, but we’ll let that slide.)
“Jam can be used as is,” says Newman. “[It] doesn’t need to be thinned or pourable. “That said, I wouldn’t use jam in a stirred cocktail as the gelatinous texture won’t seem right. But in a shaken cocktail, all the agitating with ice will help break up the jam and dilute it a little. I’ve also seen jam used in swizzled cocktails, where the ingredients are agitated with ice.”
But before you use jam as a direct substitute, check to see how sweet or tart it is. If you like, you can thin it out with a little hot water. Thinned jam could also strained to remove any seeds or pulp, depending on your preference.
Made from the sorghum grain plant, this syrup is a “complex and flavorful sweetener with endless possibilities for cocktail mixology,” says Ranella. “Unlike your standard corn or sugar cane syrups, sorghum syrup boasts a distinctive taste that’s less sweet and more intricate.”
Sorghum syrup also has an earthy, woody and sometimes smoky flavor profile that pairs well with spirits like bourbon, rum and brandy. “Sorghum is also great for making one of the best Old Fashioned cocktails ever,” Ranella says.
Arguably, birch syrup isn’t as much of a breakfast staple as its maple counterpart. But, it can certainly spice up your cocktails (and pancakes, too).
“While it has the same sugar content as maple syrup, birch syrup is darker, stronger and more complex in flavor,” says Ranella. “Some might describe it as a combination of flavors found in caramel, honey and molasses. But its aftertaste is spicier and more acidic—similar to balsamic vinegar.”
According to Ranella, this syrup pairs well with brown spirits like whiskey, as well as mezcal and aged tequila.
“I also love using birch syrup with Ports and vermouths,” he adds.
Oleo-saccharum is an oil released by citrus peels when they are mixed with sugar.
“As the peels sit in the sugar overnight, they secrete natural oils that contain concentrated lemon aromas and flavor,” wrote Alana Al-Hatlani for Southern Living.
“Oleo-saccharum is a great swap for plain old simple syrup—it adds a brightness and citrus complexity, without having to make adjustments for flavor,” says Michael J. Neff, bar director at Bar Loretta and The Gimme Gimme in San Antonio. “[It’s] easy to make with enough time, though I’ll reach for Cocktail & Sons [oleo-saccharum] if I don’t need to make a large batch.”
What Is Simple Syrup Made Of?
Simple suyrup is granulated sugar dissolved in water. It’s typically a 1:1 ratio, so think one cup of granulated sugar and one cup of water.
Can Agave Be Substituted for Simple Syrup?
Yes, agave can be substituted for simple syrup! Topps notes that its neutral flavor profile complements a wide array of cocktails.
Can You Make Simple Syrup with a Sugar Substitute?
Yes, you certainly can make simple syrup with sugar substitutes. For instance, you can use Splenda in place of the typical granulated sugar in simple syrup. However, it’s best to keep a close eye on the stove.
“Saucepan caramelization happens more quickly with this product compared to regular sugar, so watch the process carefully to prevent overheating or burning,” advises the Splenda website.
Can I Just Use Sugar Instead of Simple Syrup?
In theory, yes, but we don’t recommend it.
“The reason we use simple syrup is that granulated sugar takes time to dissolve in liquid and can be particularly stubborn in cold drinks like many cocktails,” wrote Garret. This can leave thick, undissolved sugar sludge at the bottom of your drink. And who would want that?