Sweetening the Mix

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Photograph from on jmilles Flickr

When it comes to sweetening a drink, many times sugar alone just won't hack it.

The current issue of Imbibe includes a short article I wrote about one of the alternative sweeteners being rediscovered by bartenders: maple syrup. Yeah, I know, many people find the idea of mixing their Log Cabin with their Grey Goose absolutely revolting, but pure maple syrup mixed with a rich brown spirit, such as bourbon, dark rum or apple brandy, is capable of bringing much more flavor and character to a drink than a spoonful of sugar ever could.

While maple syrup has been showing up in a drinks in Boston, New York and San Francisco, agave nectar is another alternative sweetener that's developing a fan base among bartenders. Recently it's been mixed with tequila and mezcal in a Oaxaca Old Fashioned at Death & Co. in New York, and in a combination of Venezuelan rum, cherry brandy and fresh citrus at Zig Zag Café in Seattle.

The floral-shirted bartenders at tiki bars have long known that an unexpected sweetener can bring a lot of magic to a drink. At Forbidden Island in Alameda, California, honey has joined maple syrup and a battery of house-made syrups to lend an air of sweet mystery to the bar's exotic drinks.

And then there's a whole array of sugar-related sweeteners: rich demerara syrups, invert sugar syrups, caramel syrup—all bringing traces of their unique flavor along with sweetness to the finished drink. (Though molasses, which appeared in a handful of chest-thumping drinks in the early years of the republic, thankfully has yet to make a reappearance.)

Have you explored different ways of adding a little character to your drinks through creative sweeteners? Let's hear it.