Sugar in Cocktails, The History
Simple syrup is the foundation of many cocktails. As a matter of fact, sugar in cocktails has been around since we defined “cock-tail” as a word. It was originally coined by Harry Croswell in The Balance and Columbian Repository dated 1806. Almost sixty years later a well known “Professor of Cocktails” Jerry Thomas defined the cocktail in his book How To Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion in 1962 as a traditional mixture of “spirits, sugar, water and bitters.”
If you dig through the historic cocktail recipe books or look at many original classic cocktail designs, they will contain some core spirit (e.g. rye), along side sugar, bitters and either water or ice (diluted down into water). Let’s look at the Old Fashioned Cocktail as defined by liquor.com:
- 4 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 tsp Sugar
- 1 Orange Wheel
- 1 Maraschino Cherry
- 1 Splash Club Soda
- 2 oz. Bourbon
Outside of the fruit, you’ve got sugar, water and bitters combined with bourbon. The most fundamental cocktail design in one of the most memorable cocktails. This pattern has repeated itself through history.
Then What is Simple Syrup?
Sugar and water are two of the components to the core cocktail design. Sugar has a very difficult time dissolving in a cocktail because most cocktails are not warm. Sugar dissolves in warm water, but ice water… not so much. Enter, simple syrup! Simple syrup is a pre-mix combination of sugar and water. The typical simple syrup recipe is:
- 1 part sugar
- 1 part water
If you take equal ratios of water and sugar then bring it to a boil for a minute, you’ll invent simple syrup. Or, you can just buy simple syrup pre-made. Most modern cocktails call directly for ‘simple syrup’ in their recipe, so having simple syrup on hand is helpful. Of course, there are also cold infusions for simple syrup, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
What is Rich Simple Syrup?
Rich simple syrup is a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. It’s similar (or synonymous with) rock candy syrup–a highly dense sugar syrup that is super thick and very sweet. You make it just like simple syrup, but with more sugar. Simple (pun)! And yes, you can buy it.
Note: Some people make rock candy syrup (mainly for tiki drinks) with 3:1 ratios! That’s a lot of sugar, but tiki’s have a lot of alcohol, so it works out. If you’re bored, you could also dangle a string in it and create rock candy crystals. Yum!
What is Demerara Syrup?
A demerara syrup is simple syrup made with demerara or turbinado sugar. We have a recipe on HomeCocktailMenu for a rich demerara syrup if you’re looking to make some at home. Or, you can also buy it at AwesomeDrinks!
What is Gum / Gomme Syrup?
Gum syrup is similar to a rich simple syrup but has one additional component: gum arabic. Gum Arabic adds a silky smooth texture to your syrup and gives cocktails a smooth texture on the palate. Alternatively, you will see the spelling “gomme” (pronounced ‘gum’) especially in more ancient recipe text (late 1800s early 1900s).
We’ve got a DIY recipe for Gomme Syrup if you need it. It does require more work and is often easier to purchase online, we suggest the Liber & Co brand.
Sugar Syrup Infusions
Since cocktails have had flavor they’ve had sugar infusions. As a matter of fact, sugar infusions are not specific to cocktails. Most jams and jelly’s are thicker versions of a fruit syrup (with added Pectin). You can infuse fruit in sugar or infuse citrus rinds in sugar to unlock their flavor. For example, an Oleo Saccharum is a sugar syrup made from leeching the oils out of citrus zests using sugar. A great example of a pre-prohibition syrup infused cocktail that utilizes is the Clover Club:
- 1.5 oz London Dry Gin
- .5 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
- .5 oz. Raspberry Syrup
- .5 oz. Egg White
- 3 Raspberry Garnish
The clover club called for a raspberry syrup, which you can create by bringing together sugars and raspberries. However, many of these flavored syrups can be purchased easily. Royal Rose, for example, produces a fantastic Raspberry Simple Syrup that makes creating a clover club easier than it was in the early 1900s! The beauty of a store bought syrup is in its consistency. Most small craft production syrups work hard to keep a consistent flavor profile year round.
Honey, Agave and Other Sweetness
The use of honey or agave will change a cocktails sweeter notes. Agave syrup is 1.5 times sweeter than standard white sugar and comes in a few varieties of from a light to dark. A lighter agave produces more neutral flavors while darker richer product will bring more character. Honey, on the other hand, is more natural than the higher level of processing that goes into making most commercial agave nectar. You will find dozens of honey varieties that will exhibit different flavor profiles in a cocktail.
Maple syrup has been a resource for cocktail creation for many years. Different grades of maple syrup can bring out different flavors in a cocktail, including a light smokiness. You’ll also find Palm Sugar can add a completely unique twist on your cocktail sweet factor. Or, if you want a deeper flavor, you could substitute out your white sugar for demerara sugar, which has more notes of molasses and brown sugar in your cocktail.
Grenadine as Sweetener
Of course, the most well known sweetener is grenadine. Shirley Temples (non-alcoholic) and Tequila Sunrises are a few of the most notable grenadine based drinks. Grenadine made with natural sugar, color and ingredients are the best for cocktails. That means you should stay far away from Rose’s Grenadine, which is a chemical based grenadine of High Fructose Corn Syrup and color dyes.
For a grenadine, we suggest Liber & Co Real Grenadine because it has a great color (uses actual pomegranates, the real basis for Grenadine) and a bright sweet against tart flavor. A real grenadine should balance the sweet sugars against the tart pomegranate flavor and not start with high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient (or second) on the label!
Note, however, a real grenadine may act slightly different when layering or coloring a cocktail. The sugar isn’t as thick and bright as chemical based grenadines so they may not layer as well in some drinks or bring out the same bright red color.
Sugar Balances in Cocktails
Different sugars will produce a different sharp sweetness in a cocktail. The most standard recipe ratio for a cocktail is 2:1:1 with 2 parts spirit, 1 part sugar and 1 part sour. However, a maple syrup will add a much more sweet-forward flavor to the ratio than standard white sugar. You’ll want to play with cocktail balance when playing with different base simple syrups.
Applying a liqueur to your cocktail recipe can bring new flavor profiles. Combining liqueur and sugars can over-do your sweet balance because liqueurs tend to have a large portion of sugar integrated into them. Today, we’re seeing a gradual decline of overly sweet cocktails with a preference at a better balanced craft cocktail. If you’re looking to get creative with cocktails, keep in mind the style of sugar and get familiar with the sweet part of your cocktail composition!
Pair the flavor profile of the sugar against the base spirit and focused flavors of your cocktail. You do not have to add sugar simply to sweeten your cocktail, but to make your cocktail more interesting.