Sweetness. As of the old poem on constructing a rum punch goes,
“One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak, a dash of bitters and a sprinkle of spice, serves well chilled with plenty of ice.”
But how do you choose the right sweet?
There’s a caveat that we’ll bring up–sweet doesn’t always mean sugar. There is sweetness to be found all over–in wine, in garnishes and other ingredients. But sugar–whether dissolved as a syrup, muddled with other ingredients, or lining your glass–is one of the most common ways to add sweetness.
Sugar has a long history, chronicled in a number of books, including Sweetness And Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz, and it is one marked by a lot stories of conquest, colonialism, and controversy.
We’re not going to be able to offer a complete list; however, we do hope this will offer you some guidance and let you know what’s out there.
So, let’s get into the basics of sugar for cocktails–first–how do you want it?
Shape/Size of the Sugar:
The shape you start out with will often determine the uses you can get out of the sugar. A Sugar Cube has its place (often at the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, ready to be muddled with cocktail bitters for an Old Fashioned cocktail), while good ol’ Granulated sugar has a few more uses. Sure, at this stage, we’re essentially talking about the same thing, but for convenience’s sake and for efficiency when you’re working your home bar, this does make a difference.
But granulated is just the start. Caster and Confectioners sugars are “superfine” (which is referring to an even smaller-grain version of granulated sugar crystals) versions of granulated, while Pearl and Sanding sugar are larger ‘clumps’ of sugar. This spectrum shouldn’t fool you—it’s all sugar—but depending on what you’re trying to do, how quickly you’re trying to dissolve (or not dissolve) your sugar, and if it will be used for decoration or not, you should change up your sugars.
Type of Sugar:
Sugar that we think of today, often the pure white crystallized version, is not the historic sugar of the original cocktails. Sugar used to come in huge loafs (similar to but the not-so-clean-cut version of this) and have to be shaved and portioned as a drink was being made. Additionally, sugar has undergone a lot of refinement (meaning that they go through a chemical process to remove impurities) for that perfectly white crystal. But not all sugar is like that.
Granulated sugar is often made with sugarcane or sugar beets, and is refined to be white. Cane sugar is solely made of sugarcane, and is typically minimally processed. Other types include Demerara, a favorite of Alex’s (also found in cubes) and Turbinado, a favorite of Jordan’s. Either one of these has the rich flavor of molasses/caramel built in. These are great cocktail sugars, as they are relatively affordable but add so much more than sweetness to a drink (which, on second thought, isn’t always what you may want—you sometimes do just want the sweetness).
From here, you have Brown sugar, both the Light and Dark versions, with ample molasses included, creating a caramel flavor to love and enjoy. Related, though much stronger, to the point where it borders on a savory flavor, is Muscovado, a sticky sugar often found in barbecue sauces (where it is delicious, we might add).
So, how can you test this new knowledge? Why not set up a whiskey Old Fashioned test—keeping your bitters the same, change up the sugars. If you measure (and keep your sips to a minimum to maintain some level of sobriety for the last few) and keep your other ingredients consistent, you will notice deep notes from the whiskey and aromas from the bitters that will be different.
Sugar may be just one ingredient to a great cocktail, but it’s the one you can change for the least amount of investment. So give it a try. And let us know what you think. You just might find a new “sweet” spot in your home bar.