Sweeteners are one of the essential building blocks of any cocktail; knowing which ones to use and when to use them is key for crafting a well-balanced drink. But given the variety of syrups, sugars and nectars widely available, how do you choose which to employ—and when?
“Every place in a cocktail should be reserved for a flavor building block. Not just sweet for the sake of sweet,” explains Jane Danger of the need to explore the broad spectrum of cocktail sweeteners beyond the standard simple syrup. To better understand that variety of common sweeteners, we asked a number of the country’s top bartenders to explain which sweeteners they stock and how they use each.
“Almost every drink I’ve come across that hasn’t fully worked or is missing something benefited from a bar spoon of demerara syrup,” says Danger. Made with equal parts sugar and water or, more commonly, two parts sugar to one part water, the golden-hued demerara offers a richer flavor than standard simple syrup. These qualities provide an expressiveness and depth that tends to work especially well with darker spirits in drinks like the Old-Fashioned. “We want brown molasses in there to complement the darkness of aged spirits,” explains Peder Schweigert of demerara’s natural fit with brown spirits.
Turbinado sugar, also known as sugar in the raw, is named after the method used to make it, which involves spinning raw cane sugar in a turbine. Unlike other, more processed sugars, turbinado sugar maintains a natural, molasses flavor. Jim Kearns of Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, who sees simple syrup as the “vodka of sweeteners” because it tends to get lost in a cocktail, often substitutes the more flavorful turbinado for extra boost. Kearns also recommends using turbinado as the base for flavored syrups, particularly cinnamon syrup.
“Cane sugar syrup is essential to have,” says Sarah Morrissey, of Frenchette, one of the most notable new bars in America. Cane sugar is unrefined and, as a result, retains a very subtle caramel-like flavor, but it is not quite as dark as turbinado sugar. In both a standard one-to-one ratio or the richer two-to-one ratio, cane sugar works particularly well with rum-based cocktails and is able to contribute more body to the drink, even in small amounts.
The naturally sweet nectar from the agave plant adds a distinct, honey-like flavor when mixed in cocktails. Karen Fu, the beverage director at Studio at the newly opened Freehand Hotel, favors agave nectar when building recipes around agave spirits like tequila and mezcal. Fu suggests keeping the nectar intact, rather than cutting it with water nectar with water.
Sorghum sugar has a mildly nutty, funky flavor, but when fresh pressed it offers a brighter alternative to the more molasses-driven options available. At A Rake’s Bar in Washington D.C., in place of refined sugar of any kind, Corey Polyoka calls on sorghum sap, “which has a fresh, slightly green and grassy taste that lends some depth and interest to cocktails,” he explains.