Our first installment discussed acidity, one of the primary building blocks of modern cocktails. Acidity can come from many different sources: citrus fruit, milk, wine, and vinegar. All have significant acidity, which helps balance out sweetness in a drink. One of the challenges of working with acidity is that often times the quantity of acidity in a drink is right, but the flavor profile is wrong. A drink that is perfect with ½ ounce of lemon juice will be significantly different with ½ ounce of lime juice, even though their pH are similar. Lime juice has a strong, grassy aroma and flavor that lemon juice lacks.
Luckily, the range of flavors inherent to sugar are much smaller than those associated with acidity. Sugar is a much older addition to alcohol than acidity, as it helps mask the unpleasant flavors of distillation impurities and the burn of alcohol. Sugar was in the first “cock-tail”, along with a spirit, water, and bitters.
The delicate, snowy white crystals of refined sugar at the grocery store have very little to do with sugar in ancient times. In fact, sugar is a relatively modern invention, gaining popularity in the 5th century in India as crystallization technology allowed sugarcane juice to be transported cheaply and efficiently. From India, sugar refining spread to China and eventually into the Middle East, where the refining process was industrialized. From there, it spread into Europe, probably in the 8th century.
Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean from the Canary Islands. Huge plantations were developed, significantly decreasing the price of sugar in Europe and opening it up to wider use. In the 18th century, price increases led the British to create sugar plantations in India, bringing sugar full-circle back to its origin.
Before the invention in the 1820’s of a mechanical process to turn sugar into fine granules, sugar was sold in loaf or cone form. These would have been brown in color, and were hard enough that specialized tools were used to snip off pieces of sugar for use in baking. Many punch recipes in the 18th century call for abrading the peel off of lemons using loaf sugar, which is telling.
Today, sugar is refined from beets or sugarcane. One of the byproducts of sugar refining is molasses, a dark brown, heavily flavored syrup. Most brown sugar is made by adding a portion of molasses back into refined white sugar to flavor it and make it slightly sticky.
Natural brown sugars, like Turbinado, Demerara and Muscovado are made by partially refining cooked-down cane juice. These sugars have complex flavors, and typically a slight smoky or bitter flavor.
A much more ancient sweetener is honey, which has been sought by humans for 10,000 years, originally from wild bee hives. Honey is mentioned in religious works from Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, and has been used as a medicine.
From a chemical standpoint, all sugars are divided into monosaccharides and disaccharides. Some common monosaccharides are fructose (found in honey and fruits), galactose (found in milk), and glucose (which is the primary source of energy for living things). These come together in different combinations to form disaccharides such as sucrose (common table sugar, which is glucose + fructose) and lactose ;(milk sugar, which is galactose + glucose). Honey, however, is a blend of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose, along with small amounts of maltose and sucrose.
These different sugars vary in sweetnes. Relative to sucrose (100%):
- honey is 97% as sweet.
- glucose is 74% as sweet.
- invert sugar is 50% as sweet. (Karo Syrup is HFCS with some invert sugar.)
- fructose is 173% as sweet, which could lead to novel forms of sweetness in cocktails.
In cocktails, sugar comes in a few forms. Simple syrup is simply table sugar dissolved in water, sometimes by brief cooking. Simple syrups can be flavored any number of ways, including using honey, vanilla, almonds (orgeat), citrus, pomegranates (grenadine), or exotic flavors. Older cocktails sometimes use crystalline sugar in some form, which is usually dissolved into a liquid in the shaker. Just about all forms of alcohol that are bottled under 80 proof have a significant level of sugar in them, and these liqueurs are often primary sweetening and flavoring agents in cocktails. Alas, the exact amount of sugar in these liqueurs is usually not disclosed and is difficult to ascertain. Finally, fruit, either as garnish, or muddled into a drink can provide a source of sweetness, usually paired with acidity or a fresh note.
The Old Fashioned is a good place to start looking at the role of sweetness in cocktails. It is nothing more than a spirit, water, sugar and bitters, and it is telling what utility the sugar has in the drink. Tasting the spirit, water and bitters alone, everything competes for attention. The bitters and spirit are discordant, and what water is there does little to make them play well together. Sugar works as a “binding” agent, knitting together disparate flavors into a harmonious whole. It increases the texture of a cocktail, accentuating the weight and body of spirits, and it is a direct opposing force to acidity, moderating its tart effects.
To better understand the role sugar plays in cocktails, make a 4:2:1 Daiquiri (rum:lime juice:simple syrup), a 8:4:1 Daiquiri, and a 2:1:1 Daiquiri. Taste each of the ingredients by themselves, and then each of the drinks. The 2:1:1 is heavy and noticeably sweet, leaving a film of sugar in the mouth and muting the alcohol. The 8:4:1 is lean and tart, which might be good for a summer day, but the alcohol becomes prominent, synergistically enhancing the bitterness of the lime juice. The 4:2:1 has balance, with neither the sugar nor the acidity dominating, but with both working together to keep the spirit in check.
In cocktails without noticeable acidity, sweetness also works to minimize bitterness and provide body. In the Monk’s Revenge, most of the ingredients have significant residual sugar, but the bitterness of the Campari, Fernet, and Benedictine work with the spicy dryness of Rye to make the drink seem less sweet than it is. Sweetness and bitter flavors do not oppose each other directly in the way that sweetness and sour flavors do, but rather sweetness acts as a weight, dulling the mouth’s ability to taste other flavors, much in the way fat does.
Editors Note: This is the second in a 4-part series on cocktail construction by Kindred Cocktails editor, Zachary Pearson.