Sugar, a simple ingredient that adds flavor, texture, and balances bitter and acidic elements in your drink. One of the most used ingredients in cocktails, yet often misunderstood and pretty controversial one. In the most recent years, people are becoming more aware of the high-calorie content in cocktails and sugar has become definitely the biggest thread.
“Not too sweet” is also one of the common requests that we hear in the most recent years from a customer ordering a drink at a bar. It often creates a misunderstanding and tension between bartender and customer, not realizing that the main purpose of sugar is to create a balanced drink.
Who’s to blame for?
It’s often bad past experience from restaurant chains or clubs serving fruity, sugary and cloyingly sweet cocktails. These type of venues are now becoming more aware of the growing demand for more health-conscious drinks and changing their drinks selections.
Common misconceptions about sugar
Let’s have look at some surprising but important facts about sweeteners commonly used in cocktails:
- Granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve well in cold liquids and particularly not in alcohol. So in the most cases, you want to make syrup out of it.
- Coldness suppresses sweetness. So when you drink a freshly shaken cocktail, it seems a lot less sweet than when it’s warmer.
- Sweetness in your drink doesn’t come only from basic sweeteners such as sugar syrup, honey or agave nectar but also from spirits, vermouths, liqueurs or juices.
- Sugar doesn’t add only sweetness to your drink but also texture and work as a flavor enhancer.
- Different types of sugars have a different level of sweetness and texture.
We can agree that sugar is the important part of the most cocktails but when you take a closer look, it can also be pretty harmful.
The negative impact of sugar in cocktails
When we talk about the negative impact of sugar, we mean primarily the sugar sucrose (table sugar). Sugar is the fast energy source but when consumed, it releases dopamine in our brain. It results in creating an addiction to sugar similar to cocaine and nicotine. Sugar also contributes to the steadily rising obesity problem and depression.
How to use sugar in cocktails
Anyone how’s ever tried to dissolve a handful spoon of granulated sugar in a tall glass of ice tea would agree that anything you can hope for is slightly sweeter drink and a layer of undissolved sugar sitting at the bottom of the glass. Sugar simply doesn’t dissolve well in a cold liquid and it definitely doesn’t dissolve in alcohol. So to incorporate sugar quickly and completely into our drink, we use syrup instead.
How to make Sugar Syrup
Sugar syrup (often times called simple syrup) is the most common way to add sweetness to a cocktail. Simply combine sugar in a slightly heated water, stir and dissolve. Simple right? Well if you apply too much heat to your solution then it might change the physical structure. Sucrose will break down to more viscous and sweeter fructose and glucose. You also want to cool it down, pour into a sterile bottle and refrigerate to extend the shelf life.
There are two versions of sugar syrup that you can make in a different ratios 1:1 and 2:1 (sugar to water). The preference is for 2:1 rich sugar syrup because it creates a better texture of the drink, less dilution and it last longer.
There are different types of sugar that we can use to make syrups with a different level of sweetness and texture. Adding extra flavour to our drink can be also achieved with homemade syrups flavoured with some type of fruit, spice, herb or nut.
Honey has the similar level of sweetness as white sugar but it’s denser. So we need to use less of it and in the most cases dilute it with water to be incorporated easily into the cocktail.
What other beverages contain Sugar?
We need to realize that sugar is also present in the most other cocktail ingredients. So the right question should be ”What doesn’t have sugar in it in our bar?” Frankly, there isn’t much. Some of the spirits, liqueurs, bitters, mixers or vermouths contain a certain amount of sugar.
How much we have to rely on sugar exactly?
Probably the most sugar content carries in itself liqueur. Liqueur to be called so, it has to contain 100g of sugar per liter. Creme de liqueur has to have minimal 300g/l of sugar and in the case of creme de cassis, it’s 400g/l.
Some of the ingredients contain sugar naturally due to the fermentation process (yeast turns sugar to alcohol).
Is there any additional sugar in spirits?
Most people assume that spirits contain zero sugar and calorie content but it’s far from the truth.
Most of the white spirits such as gin or vodka contain very little or no sugar. On the other hand, some producers hide that they add sugar back to the fermented spirit after distillation. It applies in the majority of cases to aged or dark spirits. What’s more surprising that it also includes some of the premium brands.
Why would they do that?
For a couple of reasons:
- Adding sugar to disguise the bad quality spirits.
We can expect to mask bad spirits from cheaper commercial products of gold tequilas, dark rums or fruit brandies. There are a lot of factors that cause you to have a hangover experience, but a lot of it has to do with sugar content in the spirit itself.
- Aged spirits are perceived as more smooth and older.
It was proved several times with a blind spirit tasting that people tend to find spirits with additional sugar more appealing. So the producers of more premium brands accommodate to the current demand without telling their consumers about the sugar levels.
Rum is a great example of a spirit where distillers add some sugar after distillation made paradoxically from sugar cane and its byproducts. The level of sugar between the rum brands varies but on average it’s around 17-22g/liter with as much as 50g/l.
Mixers have by far the highest level of sugars including sugary sodas or commercial made juices.
The worst thing about the high sugar content in cocktail ingredients is that you can’t really have a full control over mixing and a properly balanced cocktail.
Is there something that we can do about it?
First of all, we should educate consumers about the amount of sugar in spirits and liqueurs and instead of avoiding sugar at all causes, look for any available natural substitutions.
Alternatives of today
Many so-called healthy sweeteners such as Agave Nectar have equal or higher amount of fructose than regular table sugar. It means that it doesn’t metabolize well and therefore raises blood sugar levels.
Probably the best natural alternative of today is raw honey. Although, it’s still almost half fructose, it’s also rich in nutrients and almost no processing is necessary. Some other popular options to use as a sugar alternative are dates, coconut sugar or brown rice sugar.
One of the alternatives instead of using the traditional type of sugars is sweetener called Stevia.
One of the negative aspects is that it usually doesn’t create that desired texture and mouthfeel in the form of foam on the top of the cocktail. Also, the taste is often not as satisfying as with a sugar but it’s natural, and has no carbs or calories, and doesn’t raise blood sugar.
It can be dissolved in the same ratio as sugar when heated and produces a clear liquid that doesn’t foam when shaken. The taste is almost as good as of the sugar with the slightly thinner mouthfeel.
Xylitol has very few calories and doesn’t raise your glucose levels.
As we know sugar has multiple purposes in cocktails. To create a complex beverage that we recognize today, we need to ask ourselves question ”What would be the desired outcome of any future alternative to sugar?”
- A lower level of fructose
- Balancing acidity and bitterness
- Adding texture to a drink
There are companies that are working on alternatives to bring a better option those looking for a sugar made from natural ingredients.
The first of these companies is currently harvesting a unique plant protein miraculin from berry – originally from West Africa to make an artificial sweetener. The company claims that it’s better tasting and better for you than traditional sugar. The effect of this berry is that its protein tricks taste buds, turning sour food into the sweet treat. Sprinkle a little bit on lemon and all you taste is a lemonade.
Another company uses mushrooms as a sugar alternative to block bitter elements in food or beverages. The powder, known as ClearTaste blocks the signals to the brain that perceive a bitter flavour. It claims to remove bitter aftertaste from Stevia and astringency from various beverages. It can also improve both acidity and basic PH beverages while balancing the flavour profiles.
These companies might solve in the future most of the issues that we have with the sugar today. It can also work as a better alternative to the natural sweetener Stevia. Nevertheless, it doesn’t solve the important element in complex drinks – the texture.
Gum Arabic (Acacia Gum)
A natural ingredient that is mainly used in the food industry as a stabilizer and has the ability to be dissolved in water. Gum arabic is used today in the production of Gomme syrup, delivering the sweetness of 2:1 sugar syrup but with extra viscosity provided by the addition of gum arabic.
Gum arabic, combined with a sugar alternative such as natural sweetener, can be a reliable solution to add that extra texture and viscosity to your drink.
Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit distilled with botanicals takes the idea from gin(infused with botanicals). As we know, some producers of Old Tom Gin use sweet botanicals as a substitution for sugar.
The idea of sweet botanicals distilled in a non-alcoholic spirit which could work as an alternative to sugar in cocktails. It would mean no artificial, sugar and calorie-free solution that adds sweetness and flavour to the drink.
It would be although difficult to properly balance bitterness, acidity and add texture to the drink.
Let’s take this even step further.
There are various options of commercial brands of bitters that help to round out, add flavour and balance slightly sweeter drinks. Bitters are macerated botanicals in alcohol with bitter elements. What would happen if we took the bitterness away from our drink?
The solution could replace bitters completely with non-alcoholic spirit distilled with the mixture of sweet botanicals and additional gum arabic would provide that necessary texture.