The sugar rim occupies a liminal space in the world of cocktail garnishes. The saccharine adornment has never been all the rage in drink circles, nor has it ever been ubiquitous. And yet, it’s never quite disappeared from menus around the globe.
The Brandy Crusta, one of the first renowned classic cocktails, demands a sugar rim by its very name, and helped spawn an entire sugar-rimmed genre of drink that thrived during the latter half of the 19th century. The Sidecar—a better-known descendent of the Crusta—did not originally call for a sugar rim, but the drink acquired one in the mid-20th century and has never quite shaken off the association.
The crystalline garnish—typically accomplished by dipping the rim of a glass in lemon or lime juice and then in sugar, creating a thin circular border of sweetness—has also found its way into a modern classic or two, including the Lemon Drop, a sour made of vodka, lemon juice and triple sec that was a fern-bar staple of the 1970s and ’80s; and the Cable Car, invented by Tony Abou-Ganim in 1996 in San Francisco, which calls for spiced rum, lemon juice and Curaçao topped with a cinnamon-sugar rim. But the rim’s employment is, as it has always been, more the exception than the rule.
The sugar rim’s place in cocktail history is undeniable. But does it have a future within a drinks landscape in which both bartenders and consumers increasingly eschew sweet in favor of bitter or savory, and where culinary precision is praised? (Call sugar rims anything you like, but they’re anything but precise.)
Among the bigger advocates of the sugar rim is Chris Hannah. As an owner of Jewel of the South, a New Orleans bar dedicated to the memory of 19th-century Big Easy bartender Joseph Santini—the inventor of the Brandy Crusta—Hannah probably serves more sugared cocktails than any other barkeep in the United States. But he doesn’t stop at the Brandy Crusta. His Crusta Alcala, a mezcal cocktail with a coffee-sugar rim, is one of the bar’s most popular drinks. And on St. Patrick’s Day, he plans to serve a Tipperary cocktail (Irish whiskey, Chartreuse and red vermouth) with a crystallized Chartreuse rim.
It’s understandable that some bartenders might conflate sugar rims with cocktails’ so-called “dark ages.”
Hannah believes sugar-rim-hating bartenders arrive at their opinion from a place of ignorance. “All newbie cocktail bartenders want to run away from Lemon Drop shots, until they find out the first sour and daisy was a sugar-rimmed cocktail called the Crusta,” he says.
It’s understandable that some bartenders might conflate sugar rims with cocktails’ so-called “dark ages.” The most recent zenith of sugar-rimmed drinks was certainly the 1980s and ’90s, the time of the ’tini craze, when anything thrown into a conical glass was referred to as a Martini. The majority of these ’tinis were sweet drinks, flavored with fruity or candied liqueurs like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Chambord, amaretto and sour apple schnapps. In such a saccharine universe, the notion of an additional sugar rim was not out of place.
“We encountered an onslaught of sugar rims in every color and flavor imaginable,” recalls Abou-Ganim, who served them at Balboa Cafe, among other San Francisco bars. “Fortunately, that time has passed! I don’t see nearly as much use of, or call for, sugared rims today.”
Nathan McCarley-O’Neill, beverage director at NoMad Bar in New York, thinks sugar rims are a victim of the modern cocktail revival. In recent years, young bartenders have sought to present composed liquid creations strictly confined to the glass, the sort of cocktails that don’t need any help from a stripe of sugar around the periphery.
“I think drinks have shifted towards more ingredient-focused views,” he says, “where the drink is built upon each individual ingredient. Usually, this will include syrups, cordials and liqueurs, which contain sugar, removing the need for a sugar rim.”
Still, McCarley-O’Neill is not completely opposed to the concept. For him, it’s a matter of pairing the sugar with the right spirit. Liquors with a natural fruit character, such as Cognac and pisco, are, he feels, enhanced by a touch of tangible sweetness. Included in this category is a NoMad favorite called the Corazon Salvaje, a pisco cocktail with touches of absinthe, vanilla, maraschino, passion fruit, pineapple, lime and the gentian liqueur Salers. Other spirits, like vodka and whiskey, however, make bad partners.
“It’s a question of whether you want to present your customer with an intact, perfect drink that is balanced, or make them have some sort of interactive experience,” says Toby Cecchini, owner of New York’s The Long Island Bar and The Rockwell Place. “But I find the experience doesn’t carry through, because you may still have some drink left after you have sucked all the sugar off the rim, and then the drink isn’t holding up correctly.”
Indeed, generally speaking, the use of sugar rims appears to be on the wane. The effect is, as Cecchini puts it, “an anachronism that at this point doesn’t hold up anymore.”
And yet, if history is any judge, we shouldn’t be too hasty to bid the sugar rim goodbye. It is a cyclical flourish that has hung on for 150 years, and will probably be heard from again.
“They can be just silly,” observes Abou-Ganim. “But sometimes people like things that are silly.”