27 March 2016

Food Lab 34: Sugar Syrups

As any cocktail aficionado knows, many cocktails benefit from the addition of a little something sweet. Whether it's to curb the booziness of an old fashioned or absinthe frappe, to tame the bitterness of a Sazerac, or to take the edge off the citrus tartness of a margarita, a little sweet can nicely balance other flavors. And if you start keeping a container of basic simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar to water, cooked until the sugar dissolves) in your fridge, you will find additional uses for it: sweetening iced beverages, taking the edge of a vinaigrette that's too sharp, etc.

So simple syrup makes a good starting point for sweetening your cocktails. But what other options are there? Partially inspired by The Executive Committee having read a piece in Imbibe magazine on the topic, we decided to try to find out.

Now, there are some classic pairings: agave nectar in a margarita, the sugar cube drip of an absinthe fountain or Sazerac, the bitters-saturated-and-then-pulverized sugar cube of my favorite take on an old fashioned, double syrup in a mint julep. But Imbibe opened all our eyes to other possibilities. So we set up some comparative taste tests.

Batch 1 - multi-ingredient
Orgeat (commercial Fee Brothers versus homemade, from the Imbibe article)
Grenadine (commercial Rose's versus homemade, similar to this)
Molasses syrup - 1 c sugar, 1/2 c water, 1 TBSP molasses
Ferrnet syrup - using the Imbibe technique
Barley syrup - using the Imbibe technique

Batch 2 - simple syrups (1:1 ratio) using various granulated sugars
Brown sugar
Turbinado sugar
Palm sugar
Demerara sugar
Coconut sugar
White sugar - double syrup (two sugar to one water)

Batch 3 - syrups we could use pretty much as is
Karo (aka corn syrup)
Honey (which we did end up making into a cooked syrup to keep it from getting too thick to emulsify into cocktails)
Agave nectar
Maple syrup

One thing to be aware of is that different substances have different amounts of sugar per TBSP.  We couldn't get precise measurements for all our ingredients, but those we could included:

Karo: 10g sugar/TBSP
Turbinado: 12g sugar/TBSP
Maple syrup: 13g sugar/TBSP
Molasses: 14g sugar/TBSP
Coconut: 16g sugar/TBSP
Agave nectar: 16g sugar/TBSP

We then tasted everything straight. Yes, that was a LOT of tasting of sugar. Don't tell my dentist.

Orgeat: homemade didn't taste enough of almonds and was too thin, but in comparison, the commercial was VERY sweet. The viscosity was nice for cocktail applications, though.

Grenadine: homemade wins, hands down. Commercial tastes chemical in comparison.

Molasses syrup *really* tasted like molasses, but it was quite good and did well in cocktails (see below).

The Fernet syrup was DELICIOUS all by itself AND in cocktails. I've been wanting an excuse to start keeping Fernet in the house, and I think now I have it.

The barley syrup was light, nutty, and not quite as sweet. That subtleness was somewhat lost in cocktails.

Of the various granulated sugars, the double syrup is, of course, very sweet, but it also has a really nice viscosity that lends a good mouth-feel to cocktails. It would be good for applications where you want concentrated sweetness without watering things down - so drinks like highballs, that are going to be served over ice (Tom Collins, rickeys, etc.). The turbinado sugar syrup tasted like molasses, while the palm sugar had very caramel-y notes. The demerara was basically identical to the brown sugar.

Of the ingredients that started as syrups, the Karo/corn syrup was the least sweet and the thickest, so it would be good in applications where you wanted a thicker mouth-feel with less sweetness (say, a vinaigrette). The honey syrup was kind of a bust - you lost the honey-ness of the honey, and it basically just seemed like regular simple syrup. The agave nectar was quite sweet, as you might guess from the table above, and the maple syrup tasted of itself.

We then tried out some cocktails:

Milano sour - here's the thing. The recipe includes straight Fernet Branca, so you didn't really taste a difference in different syrups, because the Fernet masked it.

Vodka sour - 2 vodka, 2 lemon, 1 grenadine (homemade versus commercial) - the homemade won in a landslide

Rum sour - 2 Mount Gay rum, 2 lime, and then we tested

Palm sugar
Coconut sugar
Double simple syrup
Molasses syrup
Agave nectar
Fernet syrup

The molasses was the hands-down winner. The double was the sweetest, of course, and palm versus coconut didn't make much of a difference. Nor did the agave, surprisingly. The Fernet syrup was also outstanding. The "darker" flavors of both the Fernet and molasses syrups seemed to play very well with the rum.

Cold Spring cocktail - we had gotten some Meyer lemons from the CSA, so we decided to make the most of that. Now, this is basically a sidecar, so we decided to go with molasses versus maple. They were both good, although with the molasses syrup, you could tell what the sweetener was, where with the maple syrup, you really couldn't. That is, the cognac masked the distinct flavor of the maple syrup, so all you got was the sweetness.

Old fashioned - Bullet rye and angostura bitters, then we tested:

Fernet syrup - CLEAR winner (at least to me)
Double simple syrup - cocktail turned out too sweet
Palm sugar - caramel notes came out
Orgeat (both homemade and commercial) - homemade was too subtle, and while you got the almond from the commercial, it was also WAY too sweet
Barley syrup - very light and well-integrated cocktail
Maple syrup - the distinct taste came through clearly, and it was overly sweet

One other thing became very apparent through all this cocktail taste-testing. While we were focused on sugars and sweetness, bitters are the key to a great cocktail. But you probably already knew that.