Few admit to liking sweet drinks these days, or so it seems whenever I eavesdrop on cocktail orders. Certainly the appletinis and chocolatinis popular in the late 1990s have fallen out of favor. But sweetness itself hasn’t gone anywhere. It has just been transformed by a more modern approach to drink making.
“Drinks overall aren’t as sweet as they used to be, but I’d attribute that to the fact that fresh ingredients are being used,” says Ryan Rama, who has been on the forefront of Kansas City’s craft bartending movement since he began working in the industry in 1997. Last year he became Tequila Ocho’s brand ambassador for Kansas and Missouri.
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Bartenders have replaced what Rama calls “industrial-made premix stuff” with fresh juices and house syrups, jams, marmalades, shrubs and so on, along with shelves’ worth of liqueurs and fortified wines.
They all contain a fair bit of sugar, but sugar doesn’t dominate. Instead, it accentuates the base spirit and tames the astringency of citrus, all while delivering its own flavor, aroma and texture.
In other words, it’s nothing to be afraid of, Rama says. He uses a range of sweeteners depending on the type of drink he’s making, sometimes pairing the richness of demerara sugar with dark spirits or using white sugar in daiquiris and margaritas. Honey, agave nectar, brown sugar, maple syrup and even molasses are also options.
While Rama does appreciate the visual appeal of a bitters-soaked sugar cube at the base of a Champagne cocktail, he, like most bartenders, typically turns sugar into simple syrup before adding it to drinks. The liquid syrup dissolves more readily in cocktails, and it is indeed simple to make (see accompanying instructions).
Sugar is also a flavor carrier, something Cheryl Watt, founder of Kansas City-based Boozy Botanicals, discovered when she began infusing simple syrups at home.
“I wanted to make all these sophisticated, complex cocktails I was falling in love with at bars (in Kansas City),” says Watt, who launched her business last October. “I experimented with what I had, like the rosemary growing in my yard. I gradually moved toward the herbs and florals and spices.”
Watt sells six mostly organic syrups, including the savory rosemary mint; a rose syrup that tastes a bit like honey; the sweet-tart hibiscus; a spicy-sweet version that might incorporate jalapeño, anaheim, serrano, carbide and chili or other peppers, depending on what’s at the farmers market; a curry-inspired version; and one made with sassafras and sunflowers.
All are flavors that can be tricky to get into cocktails. A heavy hand can muddle herbs to bits, floral fragrances are delicate and elusive, and hard spices have to be steeped in something. Combining them with simple syrup is an ideal method of controlling intensity and preserving character.
Watt recommends adjusting the amount of syrup to suit your own sweet tooth, perhaps 1/2 ounce to 1 ounce syrup to 2 ounces base spirit, and then topping it off with club soda.
Adding a flavorful syrup also bumps up the aroma of a cocktail, which Watt says is as important as taste in creating an appealing drink. Syrups can capture fleeting culinary seasons, too — her first rose syrup used fresh rose petals (Watt now uses dried), and Rama made batches of strawberry jam for the bar last summer.
And the house-made list goes on. Bartenders and enthusiasts alike are making their own lime cordials, grenadine and even orgeat, a sweet almond syrup used in Tiki drinks. Some even make gum syrup, a sweet emulsifier made with gum Arabic, which comes mostly from acacia trees grown in in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s a really cool ingredient to have on hand,” Rama says. “The texture is super-velvety. It’s almost decadent.”
Ahhh … texture. Wine drinkers are familiar with the concept of mouth feel, but the sense of weighty smoothness in a drink is often overlooked when it comes to cocktails, says Chris Harrison, the chief operating officer of cocktail ingredient maker Liber & Co. Sugar adds a degree of texture to a drink, as does shaking cocktails with ice. But gum syrup does it best, Harrison says.
“Gum syrup is the original and best way to do that,” says Harrison, whose company bottles both classic and pineapple gum syrups, as well as grenadine (made with pomegranate juice from a family farm in California), a Texas grapefruit shrub, a ginger syrup with plenty of heat from fresh ginger juice and a spiced tonic syrup.
“It adds viscosity that you can’t get with other sugar syrups,” he says.
Playing with such elements adds to the cocktail-making (and drinking) experience, and the growing range of liqueurs and aromatized and fortified wines means home bartenders have even more toys to tinker with these days.
“When I first started, everyone was reaching for the peach schnapps and the triple sec,” Rama says. “Now people are using Domain de Canton (ginger liqueur) and Ancho Reyes (ancho chile liqueur).”
Gone, too, are generic vermouth references. Cocktail recipes these days call specifically for the earthy sweetness of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, the fresh and herbal Dolin Dry or any other of a dozen vermouth options. Sherry has also made a comeback, with fino, oloroso, amontillado, manzanilla, palo cortado and pedro ximénez all finding a home at the bar.
So many options, all of them with their own character and sweetness levels, can lead to so much cocktail fun. But keep the cautionary tale of candy-sweet “-tinis” in mind. Sugar, regardless of its source, does its job best when used judiciously.
“Sugar’s not inherently bad. At the same time, if it’s overused, you’ll have a very cloying cocktail,” Rama says. “Everything has to work in harmony for a cocktail to really shine.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist; firstname.lastname@example.org, @BlithSpiritsKC
The Cocktail Deconstructed
This is the third in a seven-part monthly series on the makings of a cocktail. Follow along as we break it down — spirits, sugar, bitters, water, citrus and other essentials — to arrive at the modern classic.
Straight talk about sugar
Dave Arnold has much to say about sugar in his “Liquid Intelligence” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), an essential reference for anyone interested in cocktail science.
Here are a few sweet tidbits:
▪ Cold dulls our ability to taste sweetness, so drinks shaken with ice often contain more added sweetener than those served warmer. That said, cold drinks seem to taste sweeter as they warm up, which is “one reason to drink quickly and in moderation, of course,” Arnold writes.
▪ Simple syrup is mixed at a 1:1 sugar-to-water ratio, while rich simple syrup is 2:1. But rich simple syrup isn’t twice as sweet; it delivers only 1 1/2 times the sweetness of regular simple syrup.
▪ Arnold recommends weighing both sugar and water when making simple syrup. They have different densities, so measuring by volume (standard measuring cups) can throw the ratio off.
▪ While you can make simple syrup by heating sugar and water together on the stove, Arnold prefers combining them in a blender and mixing until the sugar dissolves. He doesn’t have to wait for the solution to cool before using, and it keeps evaporation from distorting the ratio. If you don’t have a blender, shake ingredients in a tightly sealed jar (my preferred way of making a small amount of simple syrup).
Simple syrup: To make simple syrup from granulated or other dry sugars or liquid sweeteners such as honey or agave nectar, combine equal quantities by weight of sweetener and water in a pan, blender or jar. Then heat gently, blend or shake until sugar dissolves. If using stovetop method, allow simple syrup to cool before use. Store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
Anne Brockhoff, Special to The Star
All manner of sweeteners can be used to make simple syrup, including agave nectar, which Ryan Rama uses to smooth this drink’s rough edges. “A good Paloma is tart, but not overly so,” says Rama, a longtime bartender who is now a Tequila Ocho brand ambassador for Kansas and Missouri. “That little bit of agave syrup softens it just enough.”
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces tequila (Rama prefers Tequila Ocho Plata)
1/2 ounce agave syrup (see note)
3/4 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
Grapefruit soda (Rama prefers the Jarritos brand or San Pellegrino’s Pompelmo)
Lime wedge, for garnish
Combine tequila, agave syrup and grapefruit juice in a shaker with ice and shake. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, top with soda (to taste) and garnish.
Note: To make agave syrup, combine equal parts agave nectar and water; mix well.
Per drink: 167 calories (1 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Chris Harrison, co-founder of Liber & Co., recommends making this recipe both with and without gum syrup to experience how much it adds to the drink’s texture.
Makes 1 drink
Absinthe, for rinsing glass
2 ounces rye whiskey
1/4 ounce Liber & Co. Classic Gum Syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Pour a small amount of absinthe in a rocks glass, swirl to coat and pour out excess. Set glass aside. Combine rye whiskey, gum syrup and bitters in an ice-filled glass; stir until chilled. Strain into prepared glass, and garnish with lemon twist.
Per drink: 139 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.
Gin Rose Martini
Rose can prove a cocktail challenge; too much and it overpowers, too little and it disappears. Adding it in syrup form is just right, says Cheryl Watt of Kansas City-based Boozy Botanicals.
Makes 1 drink
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce Boozy Botanicals River Market Rose syrup
2 ounces gin (Watt created this recipe using S.D. Strong’s Pillar 136 Gin)
Lemon twist, for garnish
Pour vermouth into a chilled cocktail glass, swirl to coat and pour out excess. Set glass aside. Combine syrup and gin in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into prepared glass, and garnish with lemon twist.
Per drink: 182 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.