Those sweet substances filling your Southern cabinets are just itching to join cocktail hour. Find the right one to make sure your every sip in the South is sweet.
Southern pantries are known for being well-stocked with plenty of sweeteners, and from sticky brown sugars to burnished sorghum syrup, they all want to take an active role in your favorite cocktail (they like whiskey too).
In the not-so-distant past it was sort of a big deal: A black-vested, bow-tie wearing bartender — not a “mixologist” — would pluck a sparkling crystalline cube from a jar. That person would drop it in a glass and begin preparing something far beyond a plebian glass of booze. But it all started with that little hunk of pressed cane sugar, which signaled the sweet start of something special.
As you reach for your muddler or cocktail shaker it’s important to remember the undeniable truth — sweeteners don’t want to play wallflower any more than you. The right sweetener is almost like a good dancing partner: You’ll have much more fun with the right one.
Photo Credit: Sabine Morrow
Rick Blumberg, formerly with Atlanta-based Bacchanalia Restaurant Group and current beverage director for Atlanta restaurant chain Marlow's Tavern, suggests reckless abandon when experimenting with different sweetening elements in your cocktails. "Sugar is one of the four ingredients in the original cocktail — spirit, sugar, water and bitters," he said. "There really aren't any set rules, which makes mixing drinks almost as fun as drinking them."
Some sweeteners, he admitted, are intrinsically suited to specific liquors. Agave nectar, for instance, is a natural for tequila. "I also think seasonality influences the cocktail. Maple syrup is great in the winter, especially in bourbon-based drinks."
While not suggesting restraint, Southern-born Taylor Blackgrave, bar manager at The Lawrence in Midtown Atlanta, offers advice steeped in logic when determining how to sweeten a cocktail. "The amount of other ingredients you use will dictate how much room you have for sweetener,” Blackgrave said. “For example, if the cocktail is a light-bodied and refreshing ‘fizz’, I’d use either simple syrup or honey to add floral notes, as both ingredients space out well with soda and citrus.”
On the other hand, Old Fashioned and similarly short cocktails don’t provide much liquid in which sweeteners can spread out, so Blackgrave suggests using a simple syrup with a 2:1 ratio (twice as much sugar as water), which adds sweet notes without diluting the whiskey.
You’re probably thirsty now, so let’s get started. Use the guide below to know which common sugars and syrups to keep on hand for Southern cocktailing.
In cube form or transformed into simple syrup, white sugar is easily the most widely used cocktail sweetener. Refined sugars from cane and beets are nutritionally identical, but there's some question as to whether they behave the same in baking.
For drink purposes, thankfully, either works. Look for superfine, caster or bar sugars – the crystals are smaller than regular table sugar, so they dissolve easily in liquid. Which is good, because who has time to wait when it’s time for a cocktail?
Uses: Adds sweetness without intruding on primary flavors in a drink. To make a rich simple syrup, bring two parts sugar and one part water to a boil, then take it off the heat once the sugar is dissolved. Regular simple syrup uses equal amounts sugar and water. The higher sugar content acts as a preservative, and the syrup lasts a month or more in the refridgerator.
This is where beet and cane sugars travel divergent paths. Brown beet sugar is made by adding molasses to already refined white sugar, while brown cane sugar is the product of a natural refining process. The darker they are, the more molasses, and flavor, they contain.
Uses: Make a simple syrup with brown sugar when you want to add deep flavors as well as sweetness to your cocktails. It’s a key ingredient for a classic hot buttered rum batter, particularly when mixed with sweet spices and butter.
*A note about Turbinado and Demerara sugars, which shouldn't be mistaken for brown sugar: Both are minimally refined raw cane, and both can be used as they are or made into simple syrups. Demerara, which gets its name from a port in British Guyana where it originated, is a golden, light-flavored sugar with large crystals. Turbinado isn't quite as coarse as Demerara and boasts a slightly more delicate flavor.
Thick and dark blackstrap molasses; Photo Credit: AJC
Most often making its appearance during holiday baking season, this mineral-rich, slightly bitter syrup is a byproduct of both cane and beet sugar processing – essentially the goop left over after the sugar has been extracted from the cane and beets. The molasses you find on your grocer's shelf comes from cane sugar; beet molasses, on the other hand, is used in cattle feed and is not fit for human consumption.
Molasses is available in three tints and flavors. Light comes from the first boiling, dark from the second (rendering it less sweet than the lighter form), and blackstrap molasses, far less sweet but thicker and darker than the others, is produced after the third boiling.
Uses: The assertive flavor pairs well with brown liquors, including bourbon and rum. Remember, less is more when it comes to molasses, because it easily runs roughshod over other ingredients. Use a little to replace simple syrup in bourbon or brandy milk punch recipes.
Before sugar appeared, honey reigned. In fact, Spanish cave paintings provide evidence of beekeeping as far back as 7000 B.C. Along with sweetening foods, honey has also been historically prized for its medicinal properties, and was even included as an ingredient in ancient Egyptian embalming fluid. And in case you've ever wondered how much honey a single busy bee produces in its lifetime, it’s merely one-twelfth of a teaspoon.
Honey's flavor and color is determined by its source of nectar, but the general rule is the darker the honey, the more robust the flavor. In the U.S., we have more than 300 varieties of honey.
Uses: Honey adds a sumptuous and silky viscosity to cocktails, since it's thicker than simple syrup. Use it in any drink recipe that calls for simple syrup for a distinct hint of sweetness. You also can make honey syrup by heating equal parts honey and water.
Maple syrup from Morse Farm Maple Sugarwork; Photo Credit: Associated Press
While the history of sugaring is murky, it's clear that both Native Americans and later European settlers to both Canada and Northeastern U.S. states have been tapping sugar maple trees for more than 300 years. Thomas Jefferson and other abolitionists had lofty aspirations that included eradicating cane sugar grown by slaves in the Caribbean, which was the largest import to the states, and promoting maple sugar processed by free citizens. Jefferson even tried – with little success – to grow sugar maples at Monticello.
Today, the production of maple syrup hasn't changed drastically, other than utilizing innovations that save time and labor. Maple syrup is graded by color and flavor, and the syrup produced early in the season is lighter in both ways. Since the USDA changed the rules for grading maple syrup in 2015, you'll no longer find the more-robust Grades A and B syrups on grocery shelves; rather, all maple syrups are now labeled Grade A, regardless of varying color and flavor descriptors.
Uses: Pair it undiluted with most brown liquors, from rum to whiskey – just remember it has a specific flavor that’s not easily disguised. Give it a try in a hot toddy with a bit of ginger.
This sweet, standard-bearing Southern sweetener is actually considered a grain. Reminiscent of sugar cane, it comes from grass that grows in stalks, with juices that are extracted then boiled down to a thick, auburn-hued syrup. It’s a good bet that you’ll sooner find it at local farmer’s markets than superstores.
Uses: Beyond being layered over steaming hot biscuits, sorghum adds luscious sweetness to cocktails, blurring the sharp edges of Scotch and bourbon. Use it generally as you would use honey (if your honey had a Southern accent).
Taylor Blackgrave, bar manager at The Lawrence in Midtown Atlanta, finds that sorghum is often ignored, but not in her Scotch-based King Louie cocktail, whose recipe is below.
Total Time: 5 minutes
1.25 ounces Scotch
3/4 ounce 100-proof apple brandy
1 teaspoon sorghum syrup
Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes raisin tincture
In a shaker, add ice, pour in the ingredients, stir to chill, then strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish the edge of the glass with an orange twist folded in half, pierced with a whole clove.
Maple-Bacon Old Fashioned
Maple syrup makes a brilliant substitute for traditional white sugar in this Old Fashioned recipe, which was created by writer Sabine Morrow and offers a nod to the version she enjoys at Iberian Pig in Decatur, Ga.
Total Time: 5 minutes
2 ounces bacon-infused bourbon, see recipe below
1/2 ounce maple syrup
Dash Peychaud's cocktail aromatic bitters
Dash Angostura orange bitters
Place the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice. Shake well and strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Serve over a large sphere-molded ice cube. Garnish with a crisp bacon slice, orange slice and a clove-infused cherry. To infuse the cherry, add a tablespoon or so of whole cloves to a jar of maraschino cherries and allow them to steep for a couple of weeks before using.
To make bacon-infused bourbon:
Render the fat from 1 pound of apple-wood smoked bacon. I use the packaged bits and pieces sold by Trader Joe's because I want more fat than meat. Pour only the fat into 750 ml of bourbon, stir, and place in the refrigerator until the fat solidifies. Remove the fat (which is delicious slathered on corn before grilling), then strain the bourbon using 2 or 3 layers of coffee filters, replacing the filters about three times during the process. Stash the infused bourbon in the fridge.