Why does your homemade Daiquiri not taste as good as the one you ordered last night? The answer may be an important but too-often-misunderstood mixological ingredient: the sweetener.
To break down how different sweeteners behave in cocktails, we turned to Dave Arnold, who knows a thing or two about food science. As director of culinary technology for The International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), he was responsible for teaching aspiring chefs the principles and techniques of modernist cuisine.
Today, he’s bringing his special expertise to the world of bartending, using centrifuges, vacuum machines, liquid nitrogen and more to create stunningly original concoctions at New York’s cutting-edge watering hole Booker and Dax.
Here’s his advice on working with the five major sweetener categories paired with a few of his delicious drink recipes. Cheers!
This most basic of sweeteners is composed entirely of sucrose, giving it “a very pure sugar taste,” Arnold says. It adds only sweetness and not flavor, so it should be used to complement fruit, citrus or other robust ingredients. It’s often made into simple syrup, equal parts sugar and water by weight. While some dissolve the sugar by heating the mixture up, Arnold likes to utilize a blender instead of the stove. Just don’t use powdered sugar—this contains cornstarch and will ruin a drink’s texture and flavor.
Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with a bit of molasses mixed in (as opposed to unrefined sugars like turbinado and Demerara, which taste similar but are made differently). The rich, minerally flavor from the molasses matches well with other complex, earthy ingredients, such as coffee or an herbal amaro.
The sweetness of agave nectar comes mainly from fructose, which operates a bit differently on the tongue than sucrose. “Fructose sweetness hits fast and decays fast,” Arnold says. “Use agave where you don’t want the sweetness to linger,” as in a citrusy drink like the Margarita or his Leroy Brown. The lemon in Arnold’s concoction also fades quickly, giving the drink what he calls “the shortest finish I can think of.”
“The taste of honey varies dramatically depending on the species of flower the bees were visiting,” Arnold says, ranging from mild and delicate orange-blossom and clover honeys to the bold and almost medicinal eucalyptus honey. One interesting characteristic: Honey contains protein, which increases the foaminess of shaken drinks in a similar way to an egg white. For a honey syrup equivalent in sweetness to simple syrup, Arnold recommends using 64 grams of water for every 100 grams of honey. (He’s a bit of a stickler about weighing ingredients.) Use honey to sweeten his Tee Time, an Arnold Palmer variation starring a milk-washed, tea-infused vodka that sounds daunting but is actually quite easy to make.
Everybody’s favorite pancake topper is as good in drinks as on French toast. “It goes great with lemon—duh—and brown liquors,” Arnold says. Maple syrup is exactly one-and-a-half times sweeter than simple syrup, which means you can replace an ounce of simple with two-thirds of an ounce of maple in just about any drink.