The Basics History & Trends

Everything You Need to Know About Agave Nectar

This natural sweetener is a game changer behind the bar.

A small glass pitcher containing agave nectar

Lara Hata 

If you don’t have a bottle or two of agave nectar in your bar cabinet, it’s safe to say you’re ignoring a world of cocktail possibilities. But let’s start by clearing up one detail: “syrup” and “nectar” are not quite the same thing, despite the terms sometimes being used interchangeably. The golden or amber liquid sweetener you’ve inevitably spotted on the shelf at Whole Foods could sport either term on its label, but the best way to tell the difference is by looking at the ingredients––the sole ingredient in a bottle of agave nectar should be just that, whereas agave syrup is essentially agave nectar with other commercially-added components, such as high-fructose corn syrup. Agave nectar is the better option in general (from a health perspective, at least). Now that we’re on the same page, let’s talk about sweetening cocktails with agave, shall we?

How Agave Nectar Is Made

Agave nectar is made from the juice of the agave plant, which is also the source of tequila—fermented and distilled for tequila; filtered and heated for the nectar. Again, you’ll want to make sure that the nectar is made from 100% agave (Wholesome Sweeteners is a good brand to try). Given their shared DNA, agave nectar and agave spirits work well together, and we don’t just mean in Margaritas. For example, Los Angeles bartender Vincenzo Marianella mixes agave nectar with tequila, lemon juice and Chambord to create his popular Rhode Island Red. You can also apply basic bar syrup skills in order to achieve the texture that best suits your drinks.

The Basic Principles of Mixing with Agave Nectar

It’s important to note that while it sits lower on the glycemic index (and calorie scale) than table sugar, agave nectar is about 1.5 times sweeter, so keep that in mind when incorporating this sweetening agent into cocktails. A little goes a long way, and it’s easier to add more than to, well, remake your cocktail or adjust its other ingredients in an attempt to balance the flavor. The consistency of agave nectar is not unlike that of honey, though it’s subtler in taste and a bit thinner than its bee-spawned counterpart.

The versatility of agave nectar and is an excellent substitute for simple syrup or triple sec in an array of cocktails, like the Sidecar, Cosmopolitan and Mojito. To make it more mixable, spirits historian Brian Van Flandern advises adding an equal amount of warm water to the nectar. Since agave has a slight caramel flavor, it also works nicely with brown spirits and pairs well with apple and baking spices, not to mention most citrus—take the Tommy's Margarita, for example, which is a widely-accepted variation on the classic defined by its use of agave nectar in place of triple sec or other orange liqueurs.