“Sugar is not the enemy,” says Joaquín Simó.
Like many bartenders, the owner of New York’s Pouring Ribbons recalls that early on in his career he preferred “aggressively dry, aggressively tart” drinks, something he attributes to “perverse, wrong-headed pride” in eschewing sugar—a key component of the Appletinis and Midori Sours of the ’90s—altogether.
“But I had been looking at sugar the wrong way,” he admits. “The come-to-Jesus moment was when I stopped looking at it strictly as a sweetening agent, but [instead] as a texturing agent.” Anywhere from a half-teaspoon to a quarter-ounce of sugar syrup can add structure, mouthfeel and “fat” to drinks ranging from shaken Margaritas to stirred Martinis.
“I’d taste a drink, and it was almost right, but the flavors weren’t popping enough; there was a lack of fullness,” recalls Simó. He remembers tinkering with every element of a drink: the proof, the proportions, the spirits, even the ice and glassware. But somehow the drink just wasn’t snapping into focus—until he added a little simple syrup.
“All of a sudden, the flavors became much brighter,” he remembers. “I realized that little bit of sugar was giving it backbone, giving it structure, so the flavors could play off that. I said, ‘Oh! This is about texture, it’s not so much about sweet.’”
While Simó has refined the technique of adding small amounts of sugar syrup to drinks at Pouring Ribbons, he first learned the practice at the seminal New York bar Death & Co., where Simó was part of the opening team. A quick look through the bar’s eponymous 2014 book reveals small measures of simple syrup, honey syrup and the like dosing a wide range of drinks. In turn, the concept may have been imported from Pegu Club, where proprietor Audrey Saunders recalls teaching the “sugar as fat” concept to her opening team in 2005.
“The first time someone called me out for a drink being too thin, for having a lack of sugar, was when I made a Sazerac for Phil Ward as a shift drink,” recalls Simó, who had mistakenly omitted demerara syrup from his recipe. When Ward pointed out the “watery booze” quality of the drink in his typically blunt style, it planted the seed for Simó to equate sugar with “fat,” as a way to adjust the weight of drinks, not just to sweeten them.
Today, Simó likens this technique to adding butter when cooking: It adds a little richness and enhances flavors without adding an overt “buttery” flavor. He extends this comparison to selecting the right syrup for various drinks, equating 1:1 simple syrup, made with white sugar, to unsalted butter, a workhorse for most recipes; a 2:1 rich syrup made with cane or demerara sugar is analogous to brown butter, ideal for adding depth to drinks made with barrel-aged spirits.
Also like butter, it doesn’t take much sugar to get the desired effect. Simó recommends between a half-teaspoon and a quarter-ounce (a teaspoon and a half). Particularly for rich simple syrups, which concentrate the amount of sugar, “a little teaspoon or half-teaspoon can have an outsize effect.”
A touch of simple can also can help balance out drinks sweetened with liqueurs, such as orange Curaçao in a Margarita. Liqueurs don’t always provide enough sweetness to balance against tart citrus, Simó notes; sometimes simple is needed to supplement. For this reason, “If I’m making a Sidecar, there’s a teaspoon of demerara [syrup] in there. If I’m making a Margarita, there’s a teaspoon of agave nectar, and if it’s on the rocks there’s a quarter-ounce. My Cosmo spec has a little bit of simple syrup.”
While this might seem intuitive for sour-style drinks, it’s unexpected—and downright controversial—when used in stirred, spirit-forward drinks like Martinis or Manhattans. “People forget how dry or astringent some spirits can be,” Simó says; a little simple can have a softening effect with whiskey, brandy or even gin. “I will always add a little teaspoon of sugar to a Bamboo,” Simó says by way of example. “I find it unbearably thin without it.”
Of course, this corrective doesn’t work in every situation. Dessert-like drinks, for example, which are already plenty sweet, won’t benefit from extra sugar syrup, nor will drinks made with egg yolks such as flips, which have inherently rich texture. “In drinks where you have fat coming from other places, you don’t need it so much.”
Simó also cautions against adding syrup to drinks sweetened with viscous, relatively sweet modifiers: a Vieux Carré made with Bénédictine, a Negroni made with Campari, for example, or drinks made with richer sweet vermouths like Carpano Antica or Punt e Mes: “They have plenty of sugar, plenty of body.”
Most importantly, this hack should never result in a cloying drink, Simó notes. When used to add texture and enhance other flavors, it shouldn’t be evident that it’s even in there, similar to the way salted cocktails shouldn’t taste salty.
In fact, Simó argues, that dollop of syrup doesn’t even need to be listed on a drink menu. In this role of secret ingredient, he imagines sugar to be smugly anonymous: “It’s happy to sit in the back and smile with self-satisfaction: ‘My work here is done.’”