Sugar is the key element that provides body, texture and balance to cocktails of all types. The most common sugar sources for drinks, which are crafted into syrups for mixability and ease, include agave nectar, cane sugar, demerara and honey, but those only scratch the surface of what’s possible.
Cocktail bars around the world have begun elevating syrups beyond their simplest forms through the use of spices, fruits, barks and other botanicals and with high-concept techniques during the syrup-making process to yield more flavorful sweeteners that add depth and complexity to a cocktail. In addition to those more involved recipes, there are alternative sources of sugar with varying flavors and sweetness levels that bartenders are starting to explore more extensively.
These are six alternative sweetener syrups you can make, along with the best cocktails in which to try them.
Brown Sugar Syrup
Brown sugar is simply a combination of standard table sugar and molasses. The molasses adds a richness and robust texture to this type of sugar, which makes it an excellent fit for dark-spirited cocktails. “I sometimes reach for the brown sugar when I’m working with baking-spice flavors,” says Dana Darley, the hospitality consultant at Jig + Spoon Impact Group in Louisville. “Brown sugar creates an almost cotton-candy-like note and has a warm vanilla character that reminds me of childhood cookies. It’s especially lovely in dessert cocktails.”
It isn’t a syrup to use in every cocktail, but brown sugar’s ubiquity in pantries makes it a strong option for when you’re looking to try something different.
How to make it: Add 2 cups of brown sugar and 1 1/3 cups of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer until a syrup forms. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
A favorite among home bartenders and bar professionals alike, maple syrup is an easy way to twist a classic cocktail, such as an Old Fashioned or a Margarita, into a completely different drink with its distinct flavor profile.
“I was born and raised in Canada, so maple syrup runs in my veins,” says Samantha Casuga, the head bartender at The Dead Rabbit in New York City. “I love using it in stirred drinks, but I’ve alternatively used it as a backup syrup if I don't have cane or agave syrup when making drinks at home. Maple syrup obviously gives a specific flavor note, so it works best with complimentary pairings. But for me, maple syrup goes with everything.”
The most important thing to note is that the quality of the syrup matters. Imitation maple syrups made with high-fructose corn syrup, which are widely available at grocery stores, are not what you want. “Real maple has rich flavors that, depending on the style of maple syrup, run the spectrum almost as deep as whiskey descriptors themselves,” says Darley. “The mouthfeel you get is silky and smooth; it’s rich and rounds out just about anything. Woodinville Whiskey makes a barrel-aged maple syrup at its distillery property that’s incredible. I use it frequently.”
Date sugar, not to be confused with date palm sugar, is made from dehydrated dates that have been finely ground. Dates are considered a “superfood” since they’re rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, potassium, fiber and more. The ironic part is that dates are about 80% sugar as well, rendering them an excellent sugar source in addition to their nutritional benefits.
In their dehydrated and ground sugar form, though, dates aren’t the most cocktail-friendly, as their high fiber content prevents the sugar from dissolving completely when made into a syrup. To get around this, some bartenders, including Crown Shy bar manager Harrison Ginsberg, are turning to date molasses as an alternative.
“I have used date sugar, but I’ve had even better results with date molasses,” says Ginsberg. “It has a rich baking-spice note with tons of dried fruit and an almost burned-orange note. It has the depth of a caramel or an interesting amaro.” While Ginsberg has used date molasses in both coconut date syrup and date falernum, it’s also possible to use the molasses to create its own richly flavored syrup. Its sugar content is generally slightly less than honey, so it’s best used in a “rich,” or two-to-one, syrup.
How to make it: Add 2 cups of date molasses and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer until a syrup forms. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
To make Ginsberg’s date falernum, add a 750-milliliter bottle of blanche Armagnac, 80 grams of walnuts, 20 grams of bitter almonds, 20 chopped dates, 8 grams of fig leaves and the peels of 5 lemons and 3 oranges (without the pith) into a large glass jar or similar container and let stand at room temperature for 48 hours. Add 1/4 cup of date molasses and stir to incorporate. Double-fine-strain through a chinois into a bottle or other sealable container. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
Coconut Sugar Syrup
Coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, is a sugar that is derived from coconut palm sap. It’s a sugar alternative that contains more nutrients than common table sugar, with minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium all present—elements that add some texture when made into a syrup. But the real difference in this demerara-adjacent sugar source is that it actually brings a smokiness and savory component to cocktails and pairs excellently with darker spirits.
How to make it: Add 2 cups of coconut sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer until a syrup forms. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
In his coconut date syrup, Ginsberg marries the distinct flavor profile of the coconut sugar with date molasses to create a syrup that’s greater than the sum of its parts, an excellent showcase of how to effectively augment this unique sugar. It can be used in any cocktail in which you’d normally use a demerara syrup. To make it, add 1/4 cup of date molasses, 1,000 grams of coconut sugar and 1 liter of water into a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is incorporated. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
Monk Fruit Sugar Syrup
Monk fruit is a small passion-fruit-size gourd from Southeast Asia. The fruit was first used by Buddhist monks (thus the fruit's name) in the 13th century. In recent times, the fruit has become fashionable as an alternative sugar source that contains zero calories, carbohydrates, sodium or fat, even though it’s 150 to 250 times sweeter than standard sugar. Given its intense sweetness, you may find you need to use less of this syrup in certain cocktails, with the quantity adjusted to taste.
“In the early days of quarantine, I adopted a keto-friendly diet along with some friends to give us something to focus on,” says Casuga. “This is when I became familiar with monk fruit sugar. I used it as a base for the syrups I made for virtual cocktail classes I was teaching.”
Chris Tunstall, the co-founder of cocktail consultancy A Bar Above, has had mixed experiences with monk fruit sugar. He feels it’s not the easiest to work with, but its strengths can be harnessed. “Since you don't have a lot of dissolved solids like in a traditional simple syrup, the mouthfeel is very thin, almost nonexistent,” he says. “I interviewed a sugar scientist about this topic, and his recommendation was to combine multiple sugar replacements to help cut down on some of the unique tastes that some sugar alternatives can bring to the cocktail.”
The key is using monk fruit sugar in the raw instead of in powdered form, as the latter can leave an undesirable film on the glass. And given the syrup’s delicate nature, it’s better used in stirred drinks rather than shaken ones, although it can be used in both. It’s perhaps not an optimal cocktail sweetener, but it provides a healthier alternative for those looking to watch their sugar intake.
How to make it: Add 1 cup of monk fruit sugar in the raw and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer until a syrup forms. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.
Palm Sugar Syrup
Palm sugar is an ingredient commonly used in Asian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. It has begun to make its way into cocktails as more bartenders explore the realm of possible sources of sugar for drinks. Palm sugar often comes in chunks, so breaking it down can be a bit of a hassle, but it’s worth the effort.
“I was taught to make Caipirinhas with palm sugar, and I carried this with me when I ran my first program back in Calgary, Alberta, at Native Tongues,” says Casuga. “We made Caipirinha-style drinks by scooping palm sugar into a glass to be muddled with lime wedges. Doing this leaves a bit of gritty residual sugar, which I personally love. The dark and almost nutty sugar complements the bitter lime oils and juice.”
While palm sugar is easily used in Old Fashioneds and Caipirinhas as a muddled ingredient, it can also be made into a syrup for use in other cocktails, as well.
How to make it: Add 2 cups of Vietnamese palm sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer until a syrup forms. Allow to cool before using. Will keep, bottled and refrigerated, for up to one month.