The Best Types of Sugar for Every Cocktail

Elevate your simple syrups by breaking away from plain white sugar and exploring other, more richly flavored options like demerara, turbinado and muscovado. (Maxim Fresenko / GettyImages)

When you consider all the types of sugar on the market, mixing up a batch of simple syrup doesn’t seem quite that simple.

While bartenders generally rely on white sugar as the base for the liquid sweetener that goes into everything from the Mojito to the Cosmo, it’s not the only game in town. Recently, Domino released Golden Sugar, a less-processed product made with pure cane sugar. It joins light and dark brown, demerara, turbinado, muscovado and other varieties in bartenders’ arsenal. But how do you know when to use which?

“The use of sugar in all its forms needs sensitive oversight,” according to Andrew Brandwein, beverage director at CUT by Wolfgang Puck, which has several locations around the world. “Too aggressive and the cocktail is drowned from over-affection; too little leaves the potential for too much acidity.”

The first strategy is to let the color of the cocktail’s base spirit guide you. “We use lighter or bleached sugars for cocktails that are clear and/or fruit-driven, and dark sugars for brown liquors, and to add depth of flavor and a warmth and roundness,” explains Brandwein. For gin- and vodka-based drinks (including Sours), refined white sugar is a relatively neutral sweetener that won’t overwhelm or overpower.

It’s a good choice to balance out the acidity in a drink like his Pins & Needles, with Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, rosemary, cucumber and lemon. But the baking spices and layers of flavors in his Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned are better coaxed out with a richly-flavored syrup made from demerara sugar, a large-grained partially-refined brown sugar that originated in Guyana, but today is mostly sourced from Mauritius.

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In fact, variations on the Old Fashioned and Manhattan generally take well to one of the available varieties of brown sugar, including demerara. A new addition to the menu at Petrossian Bar at the Bellagio in Las Vegas is the Worldly Old Fashioned, with Yamazaki 12 Year Japanese Whisky, WhistlePig 10 Year Whiskey, Craigellachie 13 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Angostura Bitters and demerara syrup. At Venteux, a French bistro in Chicago, the 1765 Old Fashioned stirs demerara syrup and house bitters into Hennessy VSOP Cognac, served over a large cube garnished with an orange twist.

Demerara, also featured in tiki-era and tropical cocktails, is just one type of brown sugar that sits in the middle of the category; other varieties are named based on the amount of molasses that remains in the grain after it’s refined, explains author, mixologist, and spirits educator Dr. Linda Panofsky, better known in the industry as Tiki Lindy. Muscovado, which is either unrefined or partially unrefined, has the highest molasses content and flavor; turbinado has the most subtle molasses flavor veering on caramel. “Molasses has caramel, raisin and sulphury flavors,” Lindy says. “Therefore most of the ‘flavor’ in a sugar other than sweet can be attributed to the percent of molasses remaining in the sugar.”

Generally, in both Old Fashioneds and tiki tipples, demerara sugar is used in a ratio of 1:1; references to rock candy syrup or rich simple syrup require a ratio of 2:1 sugar to water, whether it be demerara or granulated. The higher the sugar content in a syrup, the longer amount of boiling it takes to dissolve it, but it also boosts the shelf life. And sugar doesn’t always need to be mixed with regular water for simple syrup; in the Black on Black, a cocktail created by rum company Don Papa, 10 Year Rum is shaken with cold brew liqueur and a muscovado syrup created by boiling two parts muscovado sugar with one part coconut water, adding flavor while keeping the texture and thickness relatively the same.

Whether you are mixing sugar with water, coconut water or something else, getting the exact ratio is not just a matter of measuring, according to James Simpson, beverage director with Destination Unknown Restaurant Group, based in Washington, D.C. “For consistency's sake, all ingredients need to be weighed before and after making your simple syrup,” he says: before to make sure the ratio is correct, and afterwards to confirm the amount of evaporation during the cooking process. Whatever syrup he’s making, Simpon prefers sous vide to a traditional or induction burner to prevent scorching the sugar and cooking off too much liquid.

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And you don’t have to stick to just one variety for syrups. Simpson and his staff have created a proprietary blend called Nogave, which combines demerara sugar from Malawi, organic cane sugar and Mexican honey; it’s used for Margaritas including their signature cocktail Mayahuel which eschews Tequila for mezcal. He hasn’t yet used Domino Golden Sugar behind the bar, but he says it’s similar to raw cane sugar, “with a good weight to it [that] tends to bring out a little grassy note when paired with fresh lime juice.” New to the market, Domino’s latest product is made with pure cane sugar that’s lightly processed; the company says it works cup-for-cup like white sugar, with a golden color and hint of molasses flavor.

Simpson also recommends that bartenders experiment with other less familiar sugar varieties like piloncillo, also called panela, an unrefined whole cane sugar from Central and Latin America derived from boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice, which creates a dark and rich simple syrup, or powdered sugar cooked with raspberries to make a Clover Club pop.

Overall, Lindy believes it helps to remember that the ubiquitous sweetener in its many iterations not only plays a big role in cocktails and in spirits including rum, but in history. “Empires, wars, and slavery--all share one thing in common, sugar,” she says. “The white granular stuff we all associate [it with] is just one end point--nearly every stopping point in that refining process yields a product used in spirits distilling or as a sweetener.”

Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits, travel and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area. You can reach her through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.