The best cocktails offer a balanced, nuanced flavor experience, bringing together the elements of sweet, sour, bitter, and burn. Achieving this delicious harmony doesn’t necessarily mean a drink has to be complicated (we’ll never turn down a well-made Martini, G&T, or Rusty Nail, for example). But since variety is the spice of life, you’ll want your beverage menu to have a few dynamic cocktail options as well.
One way to transform a good drink into a great one is through the artful use of sugar and spice. Let’s explore some best practices for incorporating sweetness and heat in cocktails and unlock a world of delicious possibilities for your cocktail menu.
The Skinny on Sugar
When we talk about sweeteners or sweetness in a drink, we aren’t just talking about dessert martinis (delicious as they may be). Sweeteners play a crucial role in cocktails, influencing both flavor and balance. They enhance taste, counteract bitterness or acidity, and contribute to texture.
When it comes to selecting a sweetener, the choice of sugar matters. One approach is to coordinate your sweetener with the cocktail's base spirit color, opting for lighter or bleached sugars for clear and fruit-driven drinks and darker sugars for brown liquors, adding depth and warmth.
Here’s a quick look at some of the different types of sugars and their unique properties:
White Sugar: Primarily adds sweetness and is best used in cocktails when turned into a simple syrup. Opt for caster sugar for easier dissolution.
Brown Sugar: Contains molasses, giving it a caramel-like flavor and a touch of color. It can add depth to cocktails like Mojitos and Caipirinhas.
Demerara Sugar: Less processed than white and brown sugars, it offers a toffee-like flavor and pairs well with darker spirits.
Muscovado Sugar: Unrefined and rich in molasses, it has complex flavors of bittersweetness, burnt toffee, and caramel. Great for rum drinks or cocktails with Amaro or coffee.
Honey: Offers a wide range of flavors, from mild to strong. Due to its thickness, typically it needs to be transformed into a syrup for easier mixing. Make sure your guests aren't vegan, as honey is an animal product.
Maple Syrup: Sweeter than sugar syrup, it can be used directly in drinks without dilution. It pairs beautifully with darker spirits like bourbon, rye whiskey, and cognac.
Agave Nectar: Made from the sap of an agave plant, it comes in various shades with differing intensities of flavor. It's sweeter than sugar, making it a great vegan alternative to honey.
Ready-Made Syrups: Gomme syrup (from the acacia tree sap) and flavored syrups offer convenience and consistency. They come in a wide variety of flavors, with a long shelf life of 18 to 36 months when stored properly.
Before you go piling in the sweet stuff, however, you need to keep in mind that the sweetness of the cocktail can also come from spirits, liqueurs, and juices. So thoughtful consideration of additional sweetener quantities is a must. As with most things in the mixology world, trial and error is the best method to determine what will work best in a particular cocktail recipe.
Turning Up the Heat
Adding spice to a cocktail, whether it’s a touch of warmth or full-blown flame, can really elevate the drinking experience to new heights. However, it takes some knowledge and finesse to use spice effectively.
Technically speaking, spice isn’t a flavor so much as a feeling. That burning, perhaps painful sensation you get from a chili pepper or dash of cayenne is the product of capsaicin, an organic compound produced by the seeds in Capsicum plants (bell peppers, jalapeños, chili peppers, etc.).
When it comes to incorporating spice in cocktails, it's not just about how much heat your chosen ingredient packs. A drink’s other components matter just as much, if not more. Because alcohol can amplify the burning feeling of capsaicin, you’ll need to keep a close eye on a drink's alcohol level, acidity, brix, and dilution when working with spicy elements. Fats and sugars, for example, can cut and minimize those effects for a more balanced beverage.
As with sweeteners, different spices offer different flavor profiles beyond just their particular level of burn. Here's a breakdown of different types and their flavor profiles, ranging from low Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) to high:
Poblano Peppers (1,000-2000 SHU): Poblanos, with their mild heat and earthy richness, bring a delightful twist to cocktail infusions. They work well for crafting subtly spicy spirits and liqueurs.
Anaheim Peppers (500-2,500 SHU): Anaheim peppers offer a moderate heat level along with a sweet, smoky flavor that can enhance the complexity of spicy cocktail syrups or bitters.
Jalapeño Peppers (2,500-8,000 SHU): Jalapeños bring a medium-level heat to cocktails, infusing them with a bright, slightly grassy, and subtly sweet flavor. They're perfect for crafting spicy margaritas or adding a kick to Bloody Marys.
Serrano Peppers (10,000-23,000 SHU): Serranos, with their pronounced heat and crisp, fruity notes, make excellent additions to spicy cocktails, lending a zesty kick to salsas and drinks alike.
Cayenne Peppers (30,000-50,000 SHU): Cayenne pepper powder is a versatile spice for cocktails, offering a balanced mix of moderate heat and a slightly sweet, earthy flavor that complements various drink recipes.
Thai Bird's Eye Peppers (50,000-100,000 SHU): These fiery little peppers bring intense heat and a hint of citrusy fruitiness to cocktails, making them essential for crafting spicy Asian-inspired drinks.
Habanero Peppers (100,000-350,000 SHU): Habaneros provide an exceptionally hot and tropical flavor profile with fruity and floral notes. Use them sparingly to create cocktails with a fiery punch.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers (100,000-350,000 SHU): With a sweet, fruity flavor and fiery heat, Scotch bonnets are perfect for adding Caribbean-inspired spiciness to rum-based cocktails.
Generally speaking, clear, unaged spirits work best for building capsaicin-spiced cocktails because they provide a neutral starting point to showcase the spice’s unique flavor properties. That’s not to say brown or aged spirits can’t be used to make spicy sips. But it’s definitely a bit trickier to pull off due to the more complex flavor profiles, and they are generally better suited to baking spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, etc.
Spice can be incorporated in a few different ways, including via syrup, liqueur or liquor—each of which will alter the overall effect the spice delivers. Spice-infused liqueurs and syrups typically contain sugar, which helps to moderate the spice level and produce a smoother finish. If you want a drink to have a stronger, sharper spicy kick, you’ll want to infuse a spirit directly. The alcohol acts like a solvent, carrying the spiciness directly to your taste buds, making it more intense and less moderated.
Embracing Baking Spices
To create an exciting, nuanced flavor experience without the burn, look no further than baking spices. Not just for cookies and pies, baking spices can add a rich, aromatic depth to your drinks, bringing out the natural warmth and bold characteristics of spirits and liqueurs. Some spices to add to your ingredients list include:
Cinnamon: A warm, sweet spice with a slightly woody and aromatic flavor. It pairs excellently with rum, whiskey, vodka, and even tequila, and is a staple in cider-based cocktails and mulled wine.
Nutmeg: A pungent, slightly sweet spice with a warm and nutty flavor. It complements creamy liqueurs like Irish cream or can be added to a Brandy Alexander for an extra layer of complexity.
Clove: A strong, pungent spice with a sweet and slightly bitter taste. It works well with dark spirits like bourbon or can be incorporated into a Spiced Mulled Wine to enhance its depth and aroma.
Ginger: A spicy, zesty spice with a subtle heat and a hint of sweetness. It pairs wonderfully with vodka in a Ginger Amaretto Sour or can be added to a Dark and Stormy for a refreshing kick.
Allspice: A warm and aromatic spice with flavors reminiscent of a combination of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It can be used in dark rum-based cocktails such as a Planter's Punch or a Caribbean Rum Punch for an extra layer of complexity.
Cardamom: A fragrant, citrusy spice with hints of herbal freshness and a slightly minty flavor. It harmonizes well with gin in a Cardamom Gin Fizz or can be incorporated into a Spiced Hot Toddy for a comforting twist.
Like capsaicin spices, baking spices can be infused into syrups, liqueurs, or spirits, or added directly into a cocktail. Whichever method you use, opt for fresh spices over powdered whenever possible.
Mastering the use of sugar and spice in cocktails is a journey that involves experimentation, balance, and creativity. Hopefully, these insights will empower you to explore new combinations and create cocktails that will leave a lasting impression on your guests.