“Nothing sweet.” It’s a phrase familiar to bartenders everywhere. Bottled cocktail mixes and rampant abuse of cheap schnapps and liqueurs (Alabama Slammer, anyone?) have led many to fear anything but the most basic mixed drinks. But thanks to a revived interest in classic cocktails and widespread adoption of craft techniques, bartenders today know how to use sugar to enhance drinks rather than numb teeth.
“Sugar is to cocktails what salt and pepper are to a steak,” explains Kevin Liu in his book Craft Cocktails at Home. “Almost every drink needs sugar in some form and a great one often rests on finding the perfect balance of sweetness to other tastes.” While every bartender has likely been asked to use less sugar or leave it out entirely, it’s usually a bad idea. A mojito without sugar (something I was once asked to make) would be an overly tart, undrinkable disaster.
Sweetness can come in many forms. One can muddle granulated sugar, as is often done in an old-fashioned, or make it into a syrup for a more mixable sweetener. That simple syrup can be infused with all manner of herbs, teas, berries and more to create layers of flavor. Creative mixologists around the world have also experimented with unconventional syrups featuring everything from cayenne peppers to gunpowder (seriously).
Bagged sugar isn’t the only starting point, of course, and ingredients like honey, maple syrup and agave add interesting depth along with sweetness. Even cocktails that are all spirits likely get a saccharine punch from some sort of liqueur or fortified wine. The martini, one of the drier and boozier drinks in the classic-cocktail canon, still relies on vermouth for a slight touch of sweetness.
Cocktails are a balancing act, and adding just the right amount of sweetener, whether it’s bulk white sugar or gunpowder-infused molasses, takes skill. But break out of your vodka-soda routine — Pittsburgh’s talented crop of bartenders is up for the challenge.