There are dozens of ways to sweeten a cocktail, but most recipes call for just one: simple syrup, a combination of white sugar and water. Trend alert: That’s all about to change. Today’s top bartenders are swapping out the flavorless white stuff with everything from organic brown sugar to maple syrup.
Taking a cue from chefs, bartenders across the country are looking back to the early days of cocktails and recreating drinks with ingredients that are less processed and of better quality, rather than the artificial flavors and sweeteners from the apple-tini era. They’re using honey, agave nectar, and raw sugars, among others, to make syrups that go way beyond “simple.”
The right sweet stuff
These natural ingredients do more than sweeten a cocktail: They flavor it, adding complexity as white sugar never could. Raw brown sugars (many of them organic)—including demerara, turbinado, and evaporated cane juice sugar—retain some of their natural molasses content, so they have different levels of moisture and robust, earthy molasses flavor. Agave nectar comes from the cooked and filtered sap of the agave plant (which is also used to make tequila and mezcal). It can be light or dark, and its flavor ranges from mild to an almost maple syrup taste. As for honey, the darker the color, the stronger its flavor—and the more intense the cocktail.
So, you’ve picked up some natural sweeteners and are ready to add them to your home bar. Begin by turning them into syrups so they dissolve easily into your cocktails. Then get mixing.
A delicious drink to get you started is the Fresh Mamie Taylor, which pairs scotch with a syrup of organic evaporated cane juice sugar and raw ginger for spicy heat and a rich sweetness.
A great honey drink is the Queen Bee Mojito, featuring a honey-sweetened mixture of rum, lime, fresh mint, and sparkling wine that boasts bigger, bolder flavor than a typical Mojito made with white sugar and soda water.
The refreshing, lightly spicy Garden Party Cocktail beautifully showcases the pairing of silver tequila and light agave syrup (a natural match because they come from the same plant), with cucumber and jalapeño thrown in for a cool flavor kick.
Beyond these recipes, you can experiment with pairing by color: darker sweeteners (dark brown sugars, maple syrup) match with darker, heavier spirits (dark rum, bourbon, brandy), just as light sweeteners (agave, mild honey) go well with pale spirits (light rum, gin, cachaça).
So save the white sugar in your cupboard for baking and start thinking like a bartender. With a wide range of alternative sweeteners at your disposal, there’s no longer any need to keep your syrups simple.