“Every place in a cocktail should be reserved for a flavor building block,” explains New York bartender Jane Danger. Beyond “just sweet for the sake of sweet,” as Danger puts it, there are many considerations—depth, texture and richness, to name a few—to have in mind when selecting something from the broad spectrum of cocktail sweeteners. In other words, knowing which syrup, sugar or other modifier to use and when to use it is key for crafting a well-balanced drink. But given the variety of options, how do you choose which to employ—and when?
To answer this question, we asked a number of top bartenders to explain which sweeteners they stock and which cocktails we should use them in. Here’s what they had to say.
Beyond Simple Syrup
“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. Most commonly made with two parts of the coarse sugar to one part water, the golden-hued Demerara offers a richer flavor than standard simple syrup. Its depth tends to work especially well with darker spirits, in drinks like the Old-Fashioned or the Sazerac.
Also known as sugar in the raw (a popular brand uses the same phrasing), turbinado is named after the method used to make it, which involves spinning raw cane sugar in a turbine. Unlike other, more processed sugars, turbinado maintains a natural molasses flavor. Jim Kearns, of The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, in New York City—who sees simple syrup as the “vodka of sweeteners” because it tends to get lost in a cocktail—often turns to turbinado for an extra boost in variations of the Daiquiri or the Cobbler.
“Cane sugar syrup is essential to have,” says New York bartender Sarah Morrissey. The sugar is unrefined and, as a result, retains a subtle caramel flavor that’s not quite as dark as turbinado. In both the standard 1-to-1 ratio and the richer 2-to-1 ratio, cane syrup works particularly well with rum-based cocktails and is able to contribute more body to drinks, even in small amounts. Try it in Ti’ Punch or a Jungle Bird.
The naturally sweet nectar of the agave plant adds a distinct, honeylike flavor when mixed in cocktails. Karen Fu, bar manager at The Maybourne in Beverly Hills, favors agave nectar when building recipes around, unsurprisingly, agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal. Fu suggests keeping the nectar full-strength, rather than cutting it with water. Cocktails from the Tommy’s Margarita to the Stone Raft benefit from a touch of the ingredient.
Sorghum sugar has a mildly nutty, funky flavor, but when freshly pressed, it offers a brighter alternative to molasses-driven alternatives, like brown sugar syrup. At the now-shuttered A Rake’s Bar in Washington, D.C., Corey Polyoka called on sorghum sap in place of refined sugar of any kind in drinks such as the Mint Julep or Whiskey Sour; sorghum “has a fresh, slightly green and grassy taste that lends some depth and interest to cocktails,” Polyoka explains. Bartender Alec Bales, of Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, also employs sorghum syrup in his low-ABV spritz, the Future Water.
Historically, there have been two main approaches to ginger syrup: One calls for simmering fresh, peeled ginger in water with brown sugar, while a spicier version blends raw ginger juice with sugar until it reaches a thick consistency. Both options can provide a kick to the Mezcal Mule, Dark ’n’ Stormy and Gin-Gin Mule.
In just about any cocktail, but especially winterized classics like the Corduroy Daiquiri and easy tiki drinks like the Elusive Dreams, cinnamon syrup offers a shortcut to complexity. The method—adding cinnamon sticks to simple syrup as it boils—can be applied to many spices, such as cardamom, coriander and clove.
Passion fruit syrup adds tropical flavor to drinks. It’s called for in the Hurricane and the London-born modern classic Dry Daiquiri, but also brings bright fruit flavor to a Pisco Sour or Queen’s Park Swizzle. To make the syrup, instead of combining juice with sugar, opt for simply adding a frozen passion fruit purée to simple syrup.
Swap Out Your Simple
Syrup isn’t the only way to add sweetness to your drink. For a more layered flavor, swap in sweet wine (which can provide drinks with zesty and acidic notes), PX sherry (for a hint of raisin and stone fruit) or Chartreuse (for herbal complexity) for the drink’s typical sweetener.
Give Leftover Wine or Beer a New Life
Using a simple 1-to-1 ratio, wine syrup can offer a cocktail more complexity and texture, thanks to its tannins, than simple syrup. Beer syrup, alternatively, imparts acidity (in the case of IPAs and sours) or richness (in the case of stouts).
Trade Water in Syrup for Another Liquid
Instead of using water, blending sugar or honey with other liquids, such as juice or tea, packs more flavor into a syrup. As Chris Amirault, head mixologist at The Maybourne in Beverly Hills, says of the technique: “The bigger, the bolder, the better.”