The Science Of Sweet Drinks…

Written by Clair McLafferty

A red cocktail on a red bar in a coupe glass.

Sugar is a necessary component of a balanced cocktail. (Photo: kopitinphoto)

“You should know, I don’t like sweet drinks.” For many, this sentence is one of the most common customer refrains. On the other side of the bar, the issue can be more complicated.

Sugar has been a part of cocktail culture since its inception. It’s part of one of the earliest definitions of a cocktail, and lends necessary depth, texture and balance to drinks. And for good reason: sweetness is one of the five basic flavors. But humans’ pleasurable connection to sweetness is genetically hardwired. Before chemical and artificial additives, sweetness was a signifier of calorie-dense foods. To promote survival of the species, humans developed a genetic predisposition to sweetness as a marker of energy-providing sustenance. Behind the bar, it’s just tasty.

Measuring sugar content

But measuring sugar content can be tricky. Luckily, this characteristic has been explored in a nifty table in Dave Arnold’s “Liquid Intelligence.” In addition, the Finnish and Swedish governments have searchable lists of some spirits and liqueurs and their sugar content.

The unit of measurement of sugar concentration is the 0-to-100 Brix scale. Getting a reading on a refractometers of 50 Brix indicates that the syrup contains half sugar and half water by weight. Likewise, a rich simple syrup should measure 66, since there are two parts sugar for every one part water. However, refractometers are easy to use incorrectly: if you buy one that covers the wrong part of the Brix scale or are trying to measure something that also contains other types of sugar such as alcohol, it won’t give accurate readings.

Some bars choose to test their syrups subjectively through taste tests. According to Dave Kwiatkowski, owner of The Sugar House and Bad Luck in Detroit and partner in restaurant group Detroit Optimist Society, the key is building a standard formula for your bar or bars. “It’s really important that consistency is [maintained] every single time.”

Getting it right

“If your simple syrup is off, then the recipe is off, right?” says Kwiatkowski. If the syrup varies, the resulting flavor of the cocktail varies. “You need to create that baseline. My advice is to find one product and stick to it or you’re constantly going to be testing and balancing and rebalancing.

“You’ve got to make sure that a. it’s made exactly the same [way] every time, and b. all the bartenders know how to use it because it may be sweeter than some other sugars,” he says. And the pairing of different ingredients is crucial, which is often where liqueurs come into play. “There is always the Manhattan that has Carpano and Benedictine or something like that that really [increases] the sweetness so it’s out of balance. That’s an issue there that I’m always aware of.”

Balancing act

If a drink isn’t sweet enough, the solution is straightforward: add a bit more simple syrup. But if the drink is too sweet, rebalancing it isn’t always an intuitive process. “There are two really good ways to counter that,” says Kwiatkowski. “One is bitter, the other is sour or acid.” By adding a bit of bitterness, the perception of sweetness is dialed down. One of the best examples is Campari, which is known more for its bitterness than its sweetness, but has a very high sugar content.

But adding a touch of bitterness isn’t the only way to nudge your drink back to balanced. “One of the more interesting [methods] is a fat washing or milk washing,” he says. “If you’re milk washing a cocktail that has a lot of sweetness, it has the effect of stripping away some of that.” Further, changing the temperature of a drink such as making a room temperature version of a cold cocktail or a cold version of a heated drink will require some rebalancing: heat tends to make drinks taste sweeter.

These approaches are especially important with a sweet base ingredient like a liqueur. “Without necessarily adding a sweetener like sugar, you can still run into the risk of going too sweet,” says Kwiatkowski.

As some say, success is sweet, but balanced cocktails usually aren’t.