From Behind the Bar: On Sugar

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking: Bruichladdich's Botanist Gin (Neat) Peak Fall Sessions Ale

It was recently Halloween, so my wife and I took the Princess of Rabbits and the grumpiest little Sunflower you've ever seen out in to the night, and helped them fill their bags with all manner of wrapped confections that we would never consider letting them eat the rest of the year.

Now my house is full of candy. While I don't have a sweet-tooth as such, I do have a weakness for any kind of snack food. I don't know why, but if I am near a bowl of pretzels, I won't stop eating them until they're gone. Ditto chips and salsa. I'm the guy that won't stop eating a bag of Skittles until it's empty, no matter what size that bag happens to be, so you can imagine the fate of my childrens' Halloween stash.

All this candy brings to mind of one of the essential ingredients in making cocktails: sugar.

Sugar, in some form, is essential to the art of the mixed drink. Sugar balances the "heat" associated with alcohol, and also imparts body and texture to cocktails. Sugar often serves as a bridge between the flavors of the base spirit and the modifying components that are added to augment it.

Sweet flavors are among the most difficult to work with because they are so, well, sweet. Used improperly, a delicious cocktail can become an undrinkable mess. If you add a little too much bourbon to your Whiskey Sour, you've got a drink with a little extra bite. If you add to much sugar, you've got something that will most likely be dumped down the drain.

One of the reasons sugar is indispensable in many cocktails is that it renders citrus juice drinkable. Sweet balances sour—freshly squeezed lime juice, for example, is very intense, so a dash of something sweet is necessary to keep the bite of the acid without making the entire thing so tart it makes your mouth pucker.

The single most common request I get when making cocktails is, "Please don't make it too sweet." I understand why. Using sugar is difficult, and the first step in becoming a competent mixologist is learning how to use it. When customers tell me that they don't like cocktails because they're always too sweet, I usually tell them that they just haven't had a properly-made cocktail yet.

Some cocktails have been made so incorrectly for so long that their names have become synonymous with bad cocktails. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Cosmopolitan. It might not be the most revolutionary of libations, but I don't think it deserves the reputation it's acquired—if the drink is made correctly.

The simplicity of the Cosmo makes it difficult to hide its flaws, and its popularity has put that poor cocktail in the shakers of every bartender on the planet, whether they squeeze their own lime juice, or (heavens forbid) pour an industrial-grade mixture of fake citrus flavor and high fructose corn syrup called "sour mix" from the gun. Many bars around the country are learning that it is in everyone's best interest to steer away from the latter option, but the Cosmopolitan got popular when very few of us made that kind of effort.

The balance of sweetness against other components is at the very core of most cocktails, and it's an easy thing to get wrong. Without it, though, there would be nothing about cocktails that would make them worth drinking. My friend Abdul, a bartender of many years, says, "Sugar is what puts smiles on people's faces." I agree, though, as I tell my kids regarding their Halloween candy, everything in moderation.