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Sweet On the Drink

The mixology movement has brought with it an attention to all drink components, including sweetening agents like the flavored syrup at the base of Kathy Casey’s Clover Thyme Club. Photo courtesy of Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen. Beverages require more than plain sweetness today

By Jack Robertiello

A sea of new ingredients has flooded the cocktail world since the early part of the century, leaving a telling mark on sophisticated beverages. Both housemade and commercially produced, this wave of novelties has changed the way most bartenders think about how they craft their drinks, usually in a good way. But there’s been an equally important yet quieter evolution in the use of sweet drink modifiers that bring more than simply sugar to the mix.

That evolution inspires bartenders to explore how sweeteners previously lesser-known to the cocktail world — honey, maple syrup, agave, molasses, brown sugars — can subtly alter the crafting of new recipes and expand the beverage palate.

One reason for this awakening trend can be laid at the feet of the Tiki gods, as fans of those tropical mid-century drinks depend on such customized ingredients as orgeat, falernum, grenadine and others to deliver various flavors to their creations. Once bartenders discovered how relatively easy it is to imbue spice, fruit or other ingredients into these bespoke sweeteners, new routes to influencing a drink’s final flavor profile opened wide.

It’s not just the influence of Tiki, however. The determination among bartenders to employ unique ingredients, the varying levels of sweetness and flavor required in contemporary drinks, and, not least, a lag in the availability and affordability of exceptional liqueurs, have all contributed to the growth in alternative sweeteners.

“Ultimately, we like to control how we sweeten the cocktail and use something other than just white-sugar simple syrup,” says New York City’s Julie Reiner, of Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club and Lani Kai. “Sometimes we use liqueurs, but the bar is set pretty high these days and you have to have a lot in your toolbox to make interesting and flavorful cocktails.”

It’s routine for a cutting-edge bar today to have its own particular recipe for grenadine, for example, using either the intense commercially produced pomegranate molasses (a reduction of pomegranate juice) or sweetening, flavoring and reducing their own pomegranate juice to house specs. The nearly universal embrace among bartenders of agave syrup, not long ago a bar oddity, also has helped expand thinking about how sweetness gets into a drink.

Pure maple syrup lends depth and sweetness to Montreal chef Pierre Rochefort’s Maple Patriot cocktail. Photo courtesy of pierre rochefort.
How sweetness arrives there is important because most successful cocktails follow basic guidelines that adeptly combine chilled and watered-down spirits with a touch of sweet — neutral, soured or flavored. Traditionally, that sweetness came from bottled cordials or liqueurs, or other handy commercial or housemade ingredients. The return of traditional bartending skills since the start of the 21st century brought with it an interest in reviving many of those ingredients.

In Reiner’s larder, for instance, there are quite a few sweet agents — two types of basic simple syrup, and others made with Demerara sugar, agave and honey. Then there are the combinations — including pineapple Demerara syrup, macadamia orgeat, raspberry syrup, jalapeño syrup, mint-tea syrup, ginger syrup — all made to house specifications.

Full-bodied and flavorful brown-sugar syrups, made with Demerara, turbinado and Muscovado, attract bartenders like Chad Solomon of the New York City-based consultancy Cuffs & Buttons. He uses a variety of sugar syrups, including his carefully measured dry simple version (four parts sugar to five water) that hits a Brix level of 44. (Brix is the scale used to measure the amount of sucrose in a solution, commonly used to measure residual sugar in the wine world.) He’s also tried a palm-sugar syrup, which has a rounder, sometimes funkier quality, when making drinks tied to southeast Asian themes.

Solomon’s analytical approach brought him to experiment with a variety of techniques to achieve the intensity he seeks in pineapple syrup. Today, rather than chopping and soaking the fruit, he juices it, measures the sweetness with a refractometer and then corrects by reducing to 50 Brix.

Infusing spirits has long been a bartender’s favored playground, but a potentially costly one, especially when the experiment involves a new technique, ingredient or spirit. That’s one reason frugal bartenders opt instead for sweet syrups as flavoring bases.

“This is a subtle way to do infusions, easier to play around with and cheaper,” says Clint Rogers, spirits director at both Henri and The Gage in Chicago. He uses a variety of ingredients and methods to deliver sweetened flavors into a drink. “With syrups, if I screw up my sweet-potato syrup, I’ve just wasted a sweet potato.”

There are a multitude of recipes for fruit and spice syrups, but Rogers found none when planning to add the autumnal flavors of a roast sweet potato to an Old Fashioned. He bakes, peels and chops them, adds cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods to a light sugar syrup and lets the mix sit overnight, straining through a chinoise the next day.

Spices are notoriously hard to balance consistently in spirit infusions, as their relative bitterness can emerge unpleasantly; Rogers doesn’t face the same issues with a sugary anise and cardamom syrup he uses in coffee drinks. While many raspberry syrups are cooked down, Rogers mashes his and lets it rest in simple syrup overnight instead, leaving behind a fresh flavor hard to get with strong spirits.

Most syrups can also be tweaked easily — Rogers adds sage leaves to the cranberry cordial he uses in a vodka-and-Aperol-based drink at Henri to make a Cranberry Sage Gimlet at Gage.

While simple syrups and their flavored cousins are fairly easy to craft, the idea of house-infused syrups is not always practical for high-volume, multi-unit restaurants, says David Commer of Commer Beverage Solutions. With their need for consistency across many units and less emphasis on cutting-edge techniques, chains prefer to source commercially produced syrups, which helps explain the explosion in flavored syrups, like Monin’s spicy mango, Torani’s pumpkin pie and Finest Call’s prickly pear, among many others. Further, as bars turn to frozen purees as a bridge between housemade and commercial, new intros like Perfect Puree of Napa Valley’s cranberry puree are winning seasonal attention.

Solomon agrees. “When we’re consulting across numerous properties and going for consistency, commercial syrups shine, given how many places need to have the same quality product.”

Honey brings richness to a drink, and its varied profiles offer exponential flavor-enhancing opportunities. Photo courtesy of national honey board.
Syrups made with sugar, though, are only the beginning; some drink makers have found that the subtle flavor differences in various honeys make them ingredients with great potential.

Kathy Casey, who creates drinks for a variety of chain and independent restaurants from her Liquid Kitchen consultancy in Seattle, pulls a unique honey from hives located in her garden of flowering fennel and fig trees, and, after enjoying the specific qualities it brings to drinks, routinely encourages her customers to seek out local or varietal honey to use in their beverages.

“Honey works especially great with clementines, grapefruits and Mandarins. But different honeys are worth checking out for what they bring to a drink,” she advises. “I’ve done a drink for an Italian restaurant with fennel-infused vodka and blood-orange juice, finished with a fennel-salt rim and tied together with a touch of chestnut honey.”

Solomon has used a range of honeys — from clover and orange blossom to a Tasmanian leatherwood type he liked for its aromatic qualities. Rogers uses a honey syrup in his Pan American Sazerac (aged cachaça, Cognac, anise-honey liqueur, bitters) made from Chicago rooftop-garden honey. Reiner notes that some spirits — particularly Scotch — work naturally well with many honeys.

Due to its hue, honey may not work in all drink applications, but bars and restaurants serving cocktails based on aged spirits — whiskies, brandies and añejo tequila — may find rewarding that extra richness honey can bring to a drink.

Drink makers have often used pure maple syrup to get depth into a cocktail, but now some interesting variations are available; Rogers buys a Michigan maple syrup aged in bourbon barrels, one so rich and smoky that some Chicago bars are selling it as shots.

Agave syrup has been a hit for many reasons, one of which is its lower glycemic-index rating, which, efficacy in weight reduction aside, has made it attractive to makers of so-called “skinny” cocktails.

“Everybody’s trying to crack the code on skinny,” says Commer, and that includes experimenting with a mix of various sweeteners to craft sour mixes. Most syrup suppliers have full sugar-free lines of sweeteners, even branching into organic sugar-free, but sometimes artificial sweeteners like Stevia or Splenda need extra care to work well in cocktails. Casey makes her “skinny sour” with a little agave, alcohol-free triple sec, fresh lime and tequila.

Commer notes different artificial sweeteners hit different sweet spots on the palate — when making a skinny sour, he mixes agave and artificial sweetener to get a flavor that’s consistent across the palate. Mouthfeel is also an issue, says Solomon, who has tried working with xylotol and sorbitol as well.

Less common but no less effective are efforts to create amalgams between syrups and spirits. Some state laws don’t allow this much tinkering, but Jamie Boudreau, who opened his bar, Canon, in Seattle late last year, adds spirits to nearly all the housemade “syrups” to fortify, extend their shelf life and add complexity — he adds Cognac to his ginger syrup, for instance.

His preference is for a strong, two-to-one ratio. “Anything else and you are just adding water to the mix, which we are already doing when we stir or shake,” he says. “I also like the two-to-one ratio because often I like to add a dash of a syrup for textural purposes, making a drink that felt ‘thin’ more luxurious.”

Spirit-spiked syrups, in addition to refining a bar’s profile, work well for batch service or high-volume specialty drinks. Casey has made a bourbon simple syrup for use in a Mint Julep, for instance, cutting a number of steps out of the final production of the drink.

It may not be the flashiest way to make a drink, but the point of all these sweetened ingredients is to bring a controlled level of fresh flavor into every beverage, year round. And in the modern world of mixology, where every ingredient is scrutinized for its particular adaptability, delivering reliable flavor will make any drink more interesting.


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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.