and other Natural Sweeteners
Along with booze and ice, sugar - in one form or another - is one of the essential components to any cocktail. The most basic, and common, cocktail sweetener is white sugar, or simple syrup - which is equal parts sugar and water, you can learn how to make it here. White sugar/simple syrup only supply a cocktail with sweetness and balance, not flavor
Though there are plenty of other sweeteners like dark sugars, honey, maple syrup and agave nectar, that are full of rich and diverse flavors. These have dramatic effects are often called for in recipes, and can also be used in place of simple substituted in cocktails in place of simple syrup with effects ranging from subtle to transformative.
Simply changing a cocktails sweetener from simple syrup to a more flavorful sweetener is one of the simplest and most effective ways to bring a new flavor to a drink. The sugar component in a drink, doesn't have to be afterthought, it is a blank canvas.
On this page we'll explore what sugar actually is made from, the different types of sweeteners available and how to use them in cocktails.
What is Sugar?
Sugar, in the broadest sense, is a type of carbohydrate and an energy source that plants and animals burn for fuel. It exists throughout nature in many forms. The most familiar to us is as the natural sweetness we find in fruits and honey. But sugar is also present in the fibrous starches of grains and in the cells walls of plants, from grass to trees. Sugar is one of the most vital elements that perpetuates life.
Of course, for our purposes we are only concerned with the first kind of sugar, the one that sweetens our desserts, breakfast cereals and cocktails. This type of sugar largely comes from one of three basic sugar molecules:
Glucose, Fructose and Sucrose
Glucose and fructose are commonly found in fruits and honey. They are monosaccharides, meaning they are single sugar molecules and cannot be broken down into smaller pieces. Sucrose is more commonly found in plants like sugar cane. and also what table sugar is made from. Sucrose is a combination of one glucose and one fructose molecule, making it a disaccharide. These all supply sweetness but have different properties, most of which are undetectable on the esurface. Incidentally, all three of these also classify as simple sugars, which are the type that yeast can ferment and turn into booze, yay! You can read more about that on the fermentation page.
How Table Sugar is Made
Table sugar is derived from either the sugar cane plant, which is a type of grass, or sugar beets, both of which contain suitable amounts of sucrose. Beet sugar is more common in Europe while cane sugar is more common in North America. There’s nothing tangibly different between the two, from a flavor or health standpoint, and it certainly makes no difference in cocktails.
The process of making granulated sugar begins by juicing the sugar cane juice or boiling the sugar beets in water to extract the sugars. The resulting cane juice/sugar beet rich water are then boiled down until sugar crystals form. This cooking process caramelizes the sugar, which causes it to turn brown and develops those familiar molasses flavors. The crystals are then spun in a centrifuge, which is like an industrial salad spinner, to remove any remaining liquid. The excess liquid spun off is what we know as molasses.
This centrifuge process may be done multiple times to further purify the sugar, which results in the primary difference between various types of sugar. More time in the centrifuge means a lighter color and a lighter flavor, and vice versa. It also results in different grades of molasses, which you can find on the rum page. Since, sugar cane, and in most cases specifically molasses, is what rum is made from.
Finally, to make white sugar, the crystals decolorized with granulated activated carbon to remove any remaining pigments and impurities to become totally white. The sugar making process can be also be adjusted in various ways to produce sugar with different flavors, colors and grinds. Here are some of the types you will encounter.
Granulated Sugar - This is plain white table sugar that you will most commonly use for simple syrup. Superfine or castor sugar, are the same but with finer grains so they will dissolve quicker.
Cane Sugar - Any type of sugar can be called cane sugar as long as it was derived from sugar cane and not sugar beet. But while there’s no specific definition, these days many products are labeled as “pure cane sugar”, “organic cane sugar” or “evaporated cane sugar”. Usually these will be a bit coarser than common granulated white sugar and because of those larger granules, they won’t have all the molasses removed. So they will have a slight gold tint and a mild molasses flavor. These cane sugars can usually be used in simple syrup, though the color will be a bit different, and they’re generally more expensive.
Powdered Sugar - Powdered sugar is very finely ground sugar mixed with about 3% cornstarch to prevent it from caking. I’d avoid using it for simple syrup because it will cloudy and the ratio would be completely different since powdered sugar is so fine.
Unlike white sugar, dark sugars have a distinct flavor that will come through in cocktails. Usually a rich caramel or molasses-like quality. There are several varieties or dark sugar and when faced with them all lined up in the baking aisle, the differences are not obvious. Broadly speaking, there are two types of dark sugar: Raw Dark Sugar and Refined Dark Sugar. Raw sugar is less processed and naturally retains some molasses and caramel flavors, turbinado, demerara and muscovado are examples. Refined dark sugar has been fully processed into white sugar, and then had molasses added back in for flavor, color and some moisture. This includes light and dark brown sugars commonly used for baking. I prefer raw sugar in cocktails.
Raw Dark Sugars - These sugars haven’t been washed or centrifuged as fully, so there's still some molasses coating the sugar, and they are generally on the side coarser side. They pair particularly well with brown spirits since the two have more complementary flavors of molasses, toffee and vanilla, as well as similar coloring. I don’t like to base things on looks, but white spirit based cocktails just don’t look quite as appetizing when dark syrups are used. I like to make rich syrups with raw sugars (meaning 2:1, sugar to water rather than 1:1) because the added body compliments the richer flavors. An Old Fashioned, is the prime example.
Turbinado - This is familiar to many as Sugar in the Raw, and is very easy to find. It is named after the spinning turbines, or centrifuges, that are used in its production. Turbinado tends to be a bit paler than other raw dark sugars, and therefore the molasses flavor is not quite as strong.
Demerara - This originated in Demerara valley in Guyana, which is also where demerara rum is from. Now other countries label their sugar as demerara, Maritus is the biggest producer. Stylistically it is very similar to turbinado, though generally a bit heavier tasting. But that seems to be the results of a stylistic trait, rather than a specifically defined a production guideline.
Muscovado - This is the most intense of the raw dark sugars, because it has retained the most molasses. So it is darker, stickier than and has the strongest flavors. It comes from It’s flavor be the most apparent in cocktails.
Refined Dark Sugar - This fully processed sugars include common dark and light brown sugar. In general, these aren’t my first choice in cocktails. Their flavors are a bit more floral and lack the earthy depth of the raw sugars. That begin said, they won’t make a bad cocktail. So it’s it’s all you have go for it. Again, dark spirits are a better match. And they sure are great in cookies.
Honey’s intersecting flavors of earth and flowers show up beautifully in cocktails. Because it has a sugar content of 82% and is so intensely think, honey needs to be diluted with water and made into a "Honey Syrup" to get it to mix without clumping.
I prefer to make mine with equal parts honey to water, though others go for a richer 2:1 honey syrup. I find 1:1 to be a closer substitue for traditional simple syrup, only slightly drier, so you may want to use a bit more if you're making a direct substituion. 2:1 is obvioulsy sweeter, but mainly I find the honey flavor to be a little too powerful when swapped in for simple syrup. Of course you could also just use less 2:1 syrup.
1:1 Honey Syrup
1 cup honey
1 cup warm or hot water
Stir to integrate, do not put on the stove.
Swapping honey syrup into a basic cocktail will make it entirely new. A gin gimlet becomes a Bee’s Knees (use lemon juice instead of lime), a Whiskey Sour becomes a Gold Rush, though works well with every spirit and goes great with fresh ingredients like grapefruit and mint. Honey also contains some proteins that cause it to froth up when shaken, so it makes for a nice textural addition, as well as a flavorful one.
While straight honey virtually never goes bad, though it will crystalize, honey syrup is pretty volatile and will oxidize in about a week. The higher the honey ratio, the longer it will last. Either way, be sure to keep it covered when not in use.
Different Honey Flavors
A honey’s flavor will vary depending on the flowers the bee’s are harvested the nectar from. There’s lavender honey, blueberry honey, eucalyptus honey, buckwheat honey, and so on. Playing around with these in cocktails can be a lot of fun, though I generally go for the generic “plastic bear” clover honey. It’s honey flavors are reliably mild and pleasant.
Most honey is pasteurized and filtered to remove any impurities and give it a clear appearance. But nowadays there are a litany of less processed honeys on the market labeled as “raw honey”, or “pure honey” or the like. These haven’t will be cloudy and may contain small particles pollen and beeswax. The best of them have a slightly creamy, almost buttery consistency and are unspeakably delicious on fresh baked biscuits. Raw honey can also be made into a syrup for cocktails also, their graininess will dissipate when mixed with warm water. But their virtues are not as apparent. So from a purely economic perspective, I'd stick with the biscuits.
Maple syrup is a wonderful sweetener in cocktails, particularly for evoking the flavors of autumn and the holidays. There are four grades of maple syrup organized by color and flavor, which you can see across the page.
As the categories suggest, the darker the syrup, the stronger it’s flavor. Generally for cocktails the stronger the better, so the Dark or Very Dark varieties are ideal, but any will suffice. Just make sure it actually came from a maple tree (sorry Aunt Jemima).
These grades have nothing to do with quality, they just have different flavor profiles. All maple syrup is made the same way. Sap is collected from a maple tree and boiled down until it reaches the desired syrup consistency. The differences are the result of when the sap was tapped. The lighter grades come earlier in the season, with the darkest ones come towards the end. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
Maple syrup is 67% sugar, there’s no need to dilute it, you can use it straight out of the bottle. Though it's because of it's added sweetness the amount should be cut back a bit. In a cocktail that calls for ¾ oz simple syrup I used a little more than ½ oz of maple syrup, or what we call a “heavy half ounce”. Not surprisingly, maple syrup works great with barrel aged spirits, particularly American whiskey and of course, Apple brandy - which is a paring as delicious as it is obvious. My two favorites ways to use maple syrup is in a Whiskey Sour or as the sweetener in an Old Fashioned with Apple Brandy as the base. Perfection.
Maple Syrup Grades - Grade A:
Golden Color and Delicate Taste
Amber Color and Rich Taste
Dark Color and Robust Taste
Very Dark Color and Strong Taste
Agave’s gentle caramel notes play well will every spirit, especially the vegetal qualities of tequila and mezcal. Agave Nectar is made from the juice from the agave plant, the blue agave is most common, which is also the species used in tequila production.
There are three levels of agave nectar, light, amber and dark. Each level increases in viscosity and intensity. The darker grades have stronger caramel flavors. The lighter variety is more processed and retains fewer plant materials, but despite the additional processing, I prefer the flavor of light agave, particularly in more refreshing cocktails.
Agave nectar is 75% sugar and contains high levels of fructose which is much sweeter tasting than sucrose and glucose. Fructose is also highly soluble in water, which makes agave nectar very easy to pour, much easier than honey, so it can be used in cocktails without diluting it. But because it’s so high in sugar you’ll only need ½ oz to equate ¾ oz simple syrup. Some do choose to dilute it with water thin out a cocktail’s body. 2 parts agave to 1 part water it s a good ratio, in which case it can be substituted directly for simple syrup. Agave will also stay good at room temperature even after opened for about a year.
Cocktail wise, the best place to start with agave is probably a Tommy’s Margarita which is a Margarita with agave instead of orange liqueur. A lot of people prefer this version to the classic because it’s a better showcase of the tequila.
Is Agave Nectar Healthy or Terrible for You?
There’s an ongoing hyperbolic debate as to whether agave nectar is a superfood or worse for you than high fructose corn syrup. The truth is neither, it should be treated like any other sugar, in moderation.
A lot of this centers around agaves sugars being mostly fructose, and the fact that fructose doesn’t raise your our blood sugar, glucose does. Because of this, agave nectar has a lower glycemic index ranking, which is favorable for diabetics, and is one reason why it considered by some to be better for you than other sugars. But the agave sugar is still processed by your body, it's just specfically done by your liver rather than your blood.
There are other suggestive health benefits linked to agave nectar, such as the presences of fructans, which are complex chains of fructose and may be beneficial to metabolism, but these are usually broken down through processing which involves heating and added enzymes. The purest "raw" agaves nectars on the market may still retain some of those qualities, but on the whole it’s probably better to think of agave nectar as agave syrup made from the sap or juice of the agave plant.
That being said. This doesn’t mean agave nectar is necessarily worse for you than other sweeteners, which some claim because of the higher fructose. There have been many studies that indicate the evidence health benefits in natural sugars vs. processed ones are suggestive at best. In general, the body doesn't distinguish between sugars, and have more or less the same effect. Even high fructose corn syrup, which your body also processes like any other sugar. The reason high fructose corn syrup is bad is the evniornmental impact of it's production. Not because it's necessarily worse for you than other sugars.
Bottom line, sugar is always unhealthy in large amounts, no matter what form it’s in.