How to Sweeten a Cocktail

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It's a sweet time for bartenders. The days of "one tsp. of sugar" are long behind us. Now, when making our creations, we have a variety of sweetening agents to choose from. Not to mention that staples from old bar manuals like gomme syrup (with gum Arabic) and homemade grenadine are making their way back behind the stick. However, along with new (and the return of old) possibilities come new opportunities for confusion.

Let's survey a few sweeteners. Where possible I recommend mixing crystalline sugars with water to create syrups. Sometimes I recommend diluting viscous liquids like honey, too. It's just easier to blend that way.There are also sweet liqueurs like triple sec or maraschino liqueur that are thought of as sweeteners and, frankly, deserve their own post.

Let's begin with white refined sugar, the most neutral of sweeteners. White sugar adds sweetness, texture and mouthfeel without adding a tremendous amount of flavor. It's made from either sugar cane or beets, which are virtually indistinguishable once the sugar is refined. Create simple syrup at equal parts sugar and water and you have your workhorse (add a capful of vodka and it will last for a few weeks). Simple syrup is best used as a baseline for recipes.

Raw sugar is from the first pressings of sugarcane and is coarser than white refined sugar. Think of raw sugar and its varieties--Demerara, Muscovado and Turbinado--as ingredients rather than just as a sweetening agent. They tend to add complexity to a drink and blend best with heavier, richer spirits. I especially like raw sugar syrups with rum and scotch.

As you can see, our choices now reach the limits of our imagination. How sweet it is? Well, that depends on you.

Gomme syrup is made at a daunting percentage of sugar to water and uses gum Arabic, which acts as an emulsifier. Gomme syrup has an amazing velvety texture and can be used with classic, rich drinks like the Sazerac or Martinez. You can buy gum Arabic from here.

Grenadine stands in a class by itself. It's essentially simple syrup flavored with pomegranate, but it bears mentioning because it's called for in so many cocktails. A few great recipes exist online for making your own. Steer away from commercial brands that don't contain a drop of pomegranate, although there are some quality commercial mixers like Stirrings, which are quite good. Use grenadine in specified recipes and not as a general sweetener.

Orgeat syrup is a complete pain in the woo-hah to make but it has amazing results in classic Tiki drinks like the Mai Tai, among others. Flavored by almonds, flower water and sometimes apricot pits, Orgeat adds an exotic profile. Trader Vic's orgeat syrup is a somewhat reasonable substitute to homemade for those with limited time.

Honey and agave syrup actually work pretty well in the same instances, although by no means are they identical. Agave is from the agave plant and not surprisingly works great with mezcal and tequila. Honey gets a bit complicated when you consider different varietals like sourwood or buckwheat. For those who just reach for the tiny bear, try blending it in a two to one ratio with hot water to make it more pliable. Honey, citrus and gin work magically together.

Maple syrup and golden syrup (like a lighter molasses) are also great mixers with sour Bourbon drinks or Applejack. There's something in both of these sweeteners that blends particularly well with aged American spirits. There are different grades for maple syrup. I've found grade B makes a great drink but some prefer to step it up with grade A.

Along with maple syrup, there are other breakfast favorites--jams, jellies and fruit purees. The Omar Bradley calls for marmalade in place of sugar and fruit in an old fashioned and works great. Straight fruit purees often need additional sweetening. Jams, jellies and purees are typically one-offs in recipes.

Molasses and brown rice syrup both tend to make things taste like health food store cookies. If you don't know this flavor, it has an odd sweet/bitter taste--somewhere between sugar and shoes. Although either one might work in a random recipe here or there. The Black Stripe is a good example.

What about artificial sweeteners? A Splenda mojito makes sense for diabetics but often artificial-sweeteners, of which I've experimented only with a few, have a sharp taste and lack the ability to bolster the texture of a cocktail in the same way sugar does. These are to be used only when necessary. Although I have never tried it, Torani makes commercially available sugar-free syrup that might be a breakthrough for those in need.

Grape syrup or raisin syrups are somewhat rare but have their uses, keeping in mind they are both grape-based but very different.

Lastly, simple syrups can always be flavored. Cinnamon or lemon grass syrup are just a few great examples. Torani--in addition to sugar-free syrup--has an array of flavored syrups that you may have seen in coffee shops ranging from very reasonable approximations to the downright disgusting--cheesecake flavor? As does Fee Brothers. Still, it's best to make your own.

As you can see, our choices now reach the limits of our imagination. How sweet it is? Well, that depends on you.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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