Sugar, in one of its many guises, is an indisputable element in a well-balanced cocktail. Too much can lead to a cloying, syrupy drink; while too little renders one that’s harshly tart and just not very sipp-able. Ubiquitous simple syrup is the go-to ingredient on many a back bar, but it’s far from the only option. Here are some alternatives, along with best uses and a few recipes to try.
Fitting in warm cocktails like the Hot Toddy, honey can be difficult to work with in cold drinks because it doesn’t easily dissolve (which Alice Gaber, mixologist at Washington, DC’s Firefly, points out is the reason bartenders made the switch years ago to simple syrup.) Still, it can be a great rich sweetener for cocktails that include ingredients ranging from rum, Bourbon and whiskey, to citrus and floral elements. Gaber uses a 1:1 ratio of honey to water, simmered until the honey dissolves. Other mixologists, like cocktail consultants Scott Baird and Josh Harris of The Bon Vivants, prefer to add just enough water to soften the honey (“Maximum flavor, minimum volume,” they explain.)
Ideally, agave nectar should be sourced from Mexican agave plants and cooked until it’s a thick and concentrated syrup. But recently unearthed questionable production methods make it debatable if some of the agave nectar on the market is any better than high fructose corn syrup. Still, proponents favor the neutral sweetness the real stuff gives to drinks like the margarita and its variations. And as Amy Troutmiller, assistant general manager at Washington, DC’s Urbana, points out, since it’s about one and half times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it than sugar in cocktails.
Powdered or confectioner’s sugar readily dissolves in cold drinks like shaken cocktails and iced tea. That’s why Troutmiller prefers it in some of her creations. “It blends easier [than granulated sugar] so there is no graininess in a cold drink.” Try it in the classic collins, or in an old fashioned.
Though you may be more apt to reach for it for your morning toast than for use behind the bar, marmalade is an easy way to add not only sweetness but also attractive fruit flavors to cocktails. Baird and Harris tout it as an essential mixology 101 component, great for home bartenders looking to easily impress guests with multi-layered drinks. “Marmalade is more exciting than jellies or jams, with a great underlying bitter element,” they note. Home cocktailians looking to shake up impressive cocktails would be wise to stock up on several jars—especially citrus flavors like Meyer lemon and blood orange. Just be sure to double strain to remove the pulp and make the resulting concoctions clear.
Basic Marmalade Sour
Courtesy of Scott Baird and Josh Harris, Founding Partners of The Bon Vivants
2 oz. base spirit
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 heaping bar spoon, or scant 1 tablespoon, of marmalade (citrus flavors like orange and lemon work best)
¾ oz. egg white
Lemon peel, for garnish
Add first four ingredients to a cocktail shaker without ice, and shake vigorously. Add ice, and shake vigorously again. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon peel.
Note: Baird and Harris also make a gin and elderflower variation of this sour by using 1.5 oz. of Plymouth gin, ½ oz. St. Germain, 1 oz. lemon juice and a heaping bar spoon of lemon marmalade.
Lavender Lemon Drop
Courtesy of Alice Gaber, mixologist at Firefly, Washington, DC
1 ½ oz. citrus vodka (Gaber uses Ketel One Citroen)
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. lavender and honey syrup (*see Note)
Powdered sugar and lemon wedge, to rim glass
Lavender flowers, as garnish (may use a lemon twist if they are not in season)
Wet the outside rim of a chilled cocktail glass with a lemon wedge, and then coat the outside of the glass with powdered sugar. Combine first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into prepared glass, and garnish with lavender flowers or a lemon twist.
*For the syrup:
¼ cup dried lavender petals (Order from www.myspicesage.com, or substitute with fresh in season, which will require a greater amount)
1 cup honey
1 cup water
Simmer all together for 20 minutes on low heat, stirring often. Strain out the lavender petals and cool. Store in a container with a tightly fitting lid in the refrigerator for up to several weeks.
Courtesy of Amy Troutmiller, assistant general manager, Urbana, Washington, DC
1 ½ oz. vodka or gin
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Orange slice and a cherry, for garnish
Add first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with club soda, and garnish with an orange slice and a cherry.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com.