After weeks of facing down holiday treats, it’s tempting to swear off sugar. Don’t. At least when it comes to cocktails, sugar is essential and well worth any calories it packs.
“A lot of people say, ‘Don’t put sugar in my drink,’ ” Erik Lorincz, head bartender at the American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel, told me during last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail. “You have to understand that sugar isn’t there to make you fat. It’s there to carry flavor.”
Sugar enhances other flavors, imparts a velvety texture (often called mouthfeel) and triggers that innate sense of pleasure we’re hardwired to feel when we taste something sweet. Not that any of that is news. Prehistoric humans carried sugar cane with them to Asia, according to “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner, 2004), and people in India learned to process it around 500 B.C.
The sweet result long remained a luxury. It wasn’t until the 18th century, when Europeans colonized the West Indies and began enslaving Africans, that the masses could afford to embrace it. Sugar beets came into production in the mid-1800s, ensuring a readily available supply. Today, sugar cane accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s output; sugar beets the remainder.
Getting sugar into your cocktail isn’t as easy as adding one lump or two, though. Your granulated kitchen staple doesn’t readily dissolve, even with shaking or stirring. When added directly, it requires a thorough muddling that’s only appropriate for drinks like the caipirinha. Superfine sugar (also called bar, castor or baker’s sugar) is more useable, but the easiest way to add sugar is by first turning it into simple syrup.
Simple syrup is just what it sounds like: simple. Most bartenders make theirs by combining equal parts sugar and water, heating the mixture until the sugar dissolves, cooling it and the refrigerating the syrup.
For recipes that call for rich simple syrup, increase the ratio to 2 parts sugar and one part water. You can also vary the flavor by using different sugars. Brown sugar syrup delivers a molasses hit to Irish coffee and other hot drinks, while raw sugar (turbinado) syrup adds a clean richness to rum and whiskey favorites.
Honey is too viscous to mix on its own, but when combined half-and-half with warm water it lends a bright, floral note. Maple syrup yields what “The Drunken Botanist” (Algonquin Books, 2013) describes as a “warm, woodsy spiciness that’s also found in spirits aged in oak,” which sounds perfect for whiskey drinks. Just be sure to use the real thing, not a maple-flavored imitation. And agave syrup deepens the earthy complexity of tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails.
Flavored sugars and syrups are another way to add character to your bar. Lorincz likes to bury cinnamon bark in sugar; he later measures out the required amount of the flavored sugar and whizzes it in a blender to make it easier to dissolve. The same technique also would work with vanilla, dried citrus peel or other hard spices.
Or, you can add the same ingredients in simple syrup. After combining the water and sugar and bringing it to a boil, reduce the heat, add a cinnamon stick or two and simmer for a few minutes. Allow the mixture to cool before straining, bottling and refrigerating it.
Feeling adventurous? Try infusing a combination of spices like cloves, allspice and star anise; ginger; herbs like mint or rosemary; fruit or edible flowers; a vanilla bean and dried orange peel; or whatever else strikes your fancy. You can even make tea syrup by infusing loose leaf Earl Grey, green or other teas.
The idea is to create layers of flavors that complement your cocktails, says Joaquín Simó, partner and bartender at Pouring Ribbons in New York.
“You can introduce tremendous complexity by stacking sweetening agents with similar flavors,” Simó told me during Tales.
As you tinker with your sugars, remember that they’re not the only source of sweet. Others include bar staples like grenadine, which should be made from pomegranate juice (check the ingredient label), lime cordials such as Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice and Orgeat syrup — flavored with almonds and orange flower water and used mostly in tropical drinks.
Liqueurs, too, contain significant amounts of sugar. Elderflower liqueur, orange curacao, Benedictine, ginger liqueur and others deliver flavor and sweetness. Upping the quotient of one ingredient might mean adjusting others to keep the drink in balance. In the end, the effort’s worth it.
“Sugar is not a bad thing,” Lorincz says. “If you’re talking about good food, you need good ingredients. In a drink, sugar is a good ingredient.”
Cheat’s Simple Syrup
Most instructions for simple syrup call for equal parts sugar and water to be heated until the sugar dissolves and then allowed to cool. But what to do when a cocktail whim strikes and you don’t want bother with all that cooking and cooling? You cheat with this easy method: combine a tablespoon each sugar and cool water in a small jar. Tighten the lid, and then shake until the syrup is clear, with no remaining sugar granules. Refrigerate the leftovers for up to two weeks.
“Speakeasy” (Ten Speed Press, 2010) gives this classic new life with a vanilla- and spice-infused honey syrup. You’ll likely have a lot of syrup left over; use it to sweeten tea or other beverages, or combine it with sparkling water for a sweet, nonalcoholic soda.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces gin (Speakeasy recommends Cadenhead’s Old Raj)
1 ounce honey syrup (recipe follows)
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 lemon twist, for garnish
Pour the gin, syrup and juice in a mixing glass. Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
Per drink: 203 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 3 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 1 quart
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups honey (Speakeasy recommends acacia)
Peel of 1 orange, removed in large strips
1 whole vanilla bean, scored and scraped
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to a boil, and let simmer for 5 minutes. Let cool, then strain into a food-safe quart container for storing. Fill a labeled squeeze bottle for easiest use. The syrup will keep for 7 days, refrigerated.
Per 1-ounce (2-tablespoon) serving of honey syrup: 49 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 13 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.