Science Your Way to a More Balanced Cocktail

Team Lyan shares their advice on how and when to use a variety of cocktail sweeteners, from honey and agave to stevia, licorice and glucose.

Due to our “No ice, no citrus and no perishables” policy at White Lyan, we often called on uncommon ingredients (like citric acid and wine yeast) and novel techniques (such as carbonation and wax-washing) to incorporate new flavors and textures into cocktails.

Equally important to the drink-making process is the choice of sweetener. Perception of sweetness in cocktails usually derives from the addition of common “table sugar” or “white sugar”—otherwise known as sucrose, a combination of both glucose and fructose—by way of things like simple syrup, gomme or flavored syrups. But there are plenty of natural and homemade alternatives that can take the place of regular old sugar.

For example, one of our highballs at White Lyan, the Rum and Cherry Cola, was made with a combination of stevia (which provides a longer-lasting sweetness that clings to your palate), molasses (which provides darker and richer notes) and white sugar. The layering of these three types of sugar provided complexity, in both flavor and texture, in the finished drink; the flavor complexity of a drink often lies in a combination of simple ingredients. While there are many alternative sweeteners that may sometimes be harder to find, like stevia or licorice root, there are also a few that have surely been sitting in your cupboard all along. Here, a few types of alternative sweeteners, as well as how and when to use them in cocktails.

Honey

Honey has nearly the same relative sweetness as white sugar. Produced by bees from sugary secretions of plants, it comes in thousands of different varieties with different flavor profiles, all depending on what floral sources the bees have collected the nectar from—acacia, orange blossom, buckwheat, heather or pine honey, to name a few. These can vary greatly in terms of flavor and perceived sweetness. For example, the darker buckwheat honey will have a pungent flavor with heavy malty notes, while orange blossom honey will be light in color and flavor with dominant notes of citrus.

For White Lyan’s Beeswax Old Fashioned, we used acacia honey, which is light and mild, and adds a lovely finish without overpowering the other components in the drink. As honey doesn’t easily dissolve in cold liquids, we recommend making a syrup by dissolving it in a 1:1 ratio with room temperature water. One of the great advantages of honey is the fact that most microorganisms cannot grow in it, so it won’t spoil (even after hundreds of years) as long as it’s kept in its original, undiluted form; simple syrup made with honey, on the other hand, will last up to a week in a fridge.

Maple Syrup

Made from xylem sap from a maple tree, maple syrup tastes, on average, about 40 percent less sweet than regular white sugar. If introduced into a drink, it will provide both sweetness and flavor that tends to work very well with darker spirits, like bourbon, whiskey or rum.

There are a few different color grades of maple syrup, each of which will impact flavor and end use. While Canada—which produces 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup supply—has its own grading system, it’s slightly different in the U.S. where it divides into two main grades: light (A) and dark (B). Grade A has a few different sub-grades: extra light, medium amber and dark amber. Each of these grades differs in flavor. The extra light syrup is the first of the syrup season; it’s very light in color and has a subtle but complex taste with heavy vanilla notes deriving from vanillin, which is naturally present in maple sap. The light amber syrups tend to be slightly darker, still light in flavor but with more pronounced maple notes. And the dark amber, which is produced towards the end of the season, has a more robust, heavy maple note. Grade B, which is ideal for cocktails that rely on bold ingredients, is produced at the end of the sugaring season; it’s almost as dark as molasses, has an intense maple flavor and is generally used in cooking or baking.

At Super Lyan, we use dark amber maple syrup in our Tennessee Nitro Martini, a take on an Espresso Martini made with Jack Daniel’s. This specific grade introduces some lovely maple notes and sweetness into the drink without being overpowering. Since we’re using cold brew coffee, which is much more gentle in flavor and contains less oils than traditional espresso, we call on a lighter grade of the maple syrup to provide an overall balance of flavors in the drink.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar, which already has a place in the modern-classic Tommy’s Margarita, is also a great substitute for sugar. Its relative sweetness is higher than that of white sugar by approximately 50 percent, so if you’re substituting simple syrup with agave nectar, use half of the quantity you’d normally choose. Agave nectar tends to work very well with mezcal- or tequila-based drinks, as it compliments the flavors of both spirits. But it also tends to work well with white spirits, like vodka or gin. We incorporated agave infused with watermelon and cucumber skins as a sweetener in Super Lyan’s Archangel Fizz, our take on a classic Archangel. And at White Lyan, we made a yuzu syrup sweetened with a combination of glucose powder and agave nectar to sweeten one of our all-time favorites, the Seaside. Glucose is about 80 percent of white sugar sweetness, so it works to offset the agave sweetness while adding a richer texture to the drink.

Stevia and Licorice

A number of herbs have the ability to increase sweetness in your drink, by way of either a tea or spirit infusion. The most well-known sweetener and sugar substitute is stevia, which is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant; its active compounds have up to 150 times the sweetness of sugar, so if you’re using it as a white sugar substitute, start with a measure of 25 percent your usual granulated sugar content when making a simple syrup. Licorice, which is typically incorporated as a syrup, tea or a spirit infusion, can also add sweetness and flavor to a drink. If making a tea, the dried and fine-cut licorice root should be 15 percent of the overall weight of the boiling water used; infuse it for five minutes before straining. If infusing into alcohol, start with five percent of the overall weight and infuse for 24 hours at room temperature before straining.

The Recipes

Beeswax Old Fashioned
This White Lyan classic is batched and rested in a beeswax-lined bottle for an especially velvety take on the Old-Fashioned. Keep the bottle in the fridge and pour the drink straight over ice.

Seaside
An all-time favorite at White Lyan, the Seaside is essentially a more savory take on the Paloma. Calling on yuzu syrup, sweetened with agave and glucose, the drink is bittered with lemon juice and lengthened with both soda and housemade “seaweed water.”

Maluma
Built directly in a rocks glass over ice, this drink combines rye whiskey with a housemade raspberry “syrup,” which gets some of its sweetness from the unexpected addition of licorice root.

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