All You Need Is One Ingredient To Age Your Cocktails

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In the spirits world, maturation is all about intensifying flavor. Take, for instance, Olmeca Altos tequilas. The Plata (aka blanco, the least-aged) variety offers tasting notes of steamed agave and fresh citrus. The more mature Reposado tastes more vanilla and woody, and the oldest Añejo (aged for 12 months minimum) totes the most robust flavor of them all. With each age bracket, the flavor intensifies, becoming smokier and emphasizing the natural caramelization of the agave plant's sugars. But you can bring the maturation process to your cocktails without the wait by whipping out one simple ingredient: burnt sugar syrup.

Burnt sugar instantly adds dark, moody depth to your cocktail, but the "syrup" part here is crucial in order to preserve a pleasant mouthfeel. It's the same reason why, even though an Old Fashioned is sweetened with a sugar cube, that sugar cube is muddled with water. Dumping straight-up burnt sugar into your drink is the fast track to gritty sips. (Enticing? Not exactly.)

The bittersweet, toasty, molasses-like profile adds a mature (pun intended) facelift to any cocktail — and you can even transition your burnt sugar syrup from day to night. Just stir it into your evening digestif or into your morning cuppa joe. Tippleman's makes a great pre-made bottled version that can be purchased online, but burnt sugar syrup is super simple to make at home: All it takes is sugar and water.

Burn, baby, burn

The only difference between making burnt sugar syrup and regular simple syrup is one step — the caramelization. You'll want to melt the sugar in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it becomes a dark brown color and begins to smoke slightly. Then, pour in the hot water — distilled or filtered if your tap water tends to run on the mineral-y side — and make a simple syrup as normal.

Take care not to actually burn the sugar here. That browned bitterness can swing from pleasant to totally inedible in a matter of seconds. The most important ingredient in the equation is your undivided attention. Some folks use a spoonful of cooking oil to help facilitate the process; this could be a welcome crutch if it's your first time "burning" sugar.

Opt for brown, cane, or demerara sugar for more depth — you can even stir in a little vanilla extract if you prefer a sweeter sip. The finished syrup should be highly viscous and dark in color. In an airtight container or mason jar in the refrigerator, it'll keep in the fridge for up to a month.

Not sure where to use it best? Your instant-aging syrup would work especially well in an Oaxaca Old Fashioned with smoky mezcal or add sophisticated flair to a Manhattan, White Russian, or Espresso Martini. When fall rolls around, it'd also make for a killer Hot Toddy or add cozy aged flavor to a steaming mug of mulled wine.